In their push for the middle ground, the filmmaking team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa might just be losing their edge. After Bad Santa, a scabrous shredding of Tinseltown's usual holiday platitudes, and last year's I Love You, Phillip Morris, a bold yet ultimately rather sweet Jim Carrey vehicle that had its US release delayed by distributors nervy around its handling of gay themes, the pair's Crazy, Stupid, Love. lends a relatively conventional treatment to a script by Dan Fogelman (Fred Claus, Tangled). This is a starry romantic comedy, tailored for mainstream acceptance, yet lent some distinction by its focus on the relationship between two demonstrably heterosexual men.
First, there is Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), whose wife of some twentysomething years, Emily (Julianne Moore), has just announced she's been sleeping with a colleague, and wants a divorce. In the middle of his misery, Cal walks into a bar and catches the eye of Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a seasoned pick-up artist who takes pity on the poor chump and begins, over several lessons, to pass on the choice tricks, lines and moves that have made him such a wow with the opposite sex. The film thus opens as an exclusively masculine Pygmalion rejig: Jacob installs Cal with a new wardrobe, and a new-found sense of self-confidence, in what's perhaps the cinema's first all-male makeover montage; from this, Cal gains a suede sports jacket that frankly, to these eyes, looks terrible on him, but this doesn't stop him from getting to bang his son's high-school teacher (Marisa Tomei).
Gradually, Fogelman comes to sketch in several meandering, unruly subplots. There's one concerning that same, somewhat squat son (Jonah Bobo), who denounces the plot of The Scarlet Letter in class as about "a bunch of assholes who fell in love like assholes and made assholes out of everybody else", which I think falls close to the John Sutherland line; he's developing an obsessive crush on the family babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). There's another about Hannah (Emma Stone), a workaholic law student seen rejecting Jacob's advances in the opening scene, and who clearly - so the film believes - needs nothing more than to get laid. The form aspires to the Crash or Short Cuts (or, perhaps closer, Love, Actually) template, but the content proves increasingly familiar; it's another recent romantic comedy - see also the recent pair of fuckbuddy epics (No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits) - dressed up in such a way as for us not to believe it's a romantic comedy, with all the negative connotations that genre now retains.
Flashes of the directors' transgressive style make themselves apparent - when Cal takes the teacher back to his place, he can't help blurting out "I'm a little worried you have AIDS", not quite believing his luck - yet this is still a film where it rains when somebody's emotions get hurt, and where Jacob finally has to prove himself a sensitive soul in demonstrating a close knowledge of Patrick Swayze's Dirty Dancing pick-ups. Cal's renewed self-confidence goes not specifically toward racking up notches on an otherwise pristine bedpost, but breaking into his family's home in the middle of the night - to Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place" - to ensure the flowers are being watered. And while everyone insists they need a Jacob in their lives to make their PG-13 lives a tad more R-rated, the film itself remains resolutely PG-13: Gosling gets to whip his shirt off ("My God, it's as though you've been Photoshopped," Stone gasps, marvelling at his six-pack), but his conquests remain covered by the exact length of duvet in the morning. (The contrast with the rather less sparing depiction of man-love in Phillip Morris could scarcely be greater.)
Still, within these limitations, Crazy, Stupid, Love. remains watchable enough, and it'll do no harm whatsoever to Ficarra and Requa's growing rep as actor's directors. Carell, a comedian promoted very rapidly to leading man status off the back of his normalcy and relatability, at least finds more to test him than he did in Dan in Real Life: if the bar scenes rely on him displaying some very familiar, Michael Scott-like maladroit tendencies, he's encouraged elsewhere to display an appreciable mix of decency, befuddlement and hurt. Gosling's peacocking is nicely pitched, and Tomei and Stone enjoy sparky cameos; the only inevitability on this front is how little there is for Moore, whose talents traditionally go to waste in entertainments such as these.
Rather like a night with Jacob, I suspect it's possible to emerge having enjoyed the experience, but nevertheless feeling as though you've spent the best part of two hours being sold a line - the line that love makes assholes of us all. If nothing else, Crazy, Stupid, Love. demonstrates that romcoms written by men about men, and possibly even aimed at drawing in the kind of husbands and boyfriends who would only go near a romcom if it had a title something like Crazy, Stupid, Love., can be every bit as simplistic, confused and cynical as anything torn from the pages of a chicklit bestseller.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. is in cinemas nationwide.