Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is married to his high school sweetheart, has a good job, nice house and great kids. He thinks he has it all, but is for a rude shock when Emily (Julianne Moore) has cheated on him and wants a divorce. Newly single, Cal is taken under the wing of a younger, man about the town, Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Meanwhile, Cal's 13-year-old, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), has a crush on his 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who in turn has feelings for Cal.
Towards the end of the appealing Crazy, Stupid, Love, screenwriter Dan Fogelman conjures up a scene that unexpectedly brings together nearly central character in this story in a way that both deepens and extends the plot, while also offering up a rousing succession of physical and verbal gags. In its own narrow, considered take on the Hollywood movie, Fogelman’s scene is something of masterpiece, more than enough to justify seeing the film but also the cause of a difficult finale, for there is no way to top what has just occurred except to just leave it as a welcome memory and harness the subsequent mood.
Such an unexpected hitch in the wake of a triumph could also represent the movie’s take on love, which begins with the worn out marriage of Cal and Emily Weaver (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) ending with her blurting out a request for a divorce while out at dinner and then confessing to an affair. Love, from the title onwards, is discussed, examined and pined over throughout the movie, broadly guaranteeing that something so special can’t be attained without corresponding pain at some point. What separates the picture from so many romantic comedies is that it has a voice of its own, and that includes a sharpened, brisk wit that undercuts any looming excess of sentimentality.
Cal is soon hanging out in a bar, loudly riffing on the term 'cuckold" and watching the resident lothario, Jacob (Ryan Gosling), shark his way through a nightly succession of conquests. Like many of the connections in the film, where virtually everyone is in the throes of unrequited love, the link between the two men is fortuitous but well played. Jacob gives Cal a makeover – Fogelman cannily attaches many of the female staples of romantic comedies to the male characters – and attempts to resuscitate his masculinity, eventually launching the older man into an assignation with Marisa Tomei’s surprisingly raucous single.
The only woman Jacob can’t get is Hanna (Emma Stone), a diligent law student intent on making do with a dorky boyfriend (Josh Groban), and the further the movie progresses the more interesting their relationship is compared to that of Cal and Emily, which can never quite get past their shared past and into current specifics. There’s an extended montage between the young pair that actually has telling dialogue, instead of a musical cue derived from a pop hit, and there’s genuine friction in seeing Stone’s nervous bravado melt Jacob’s charismatic veneer; the likes of No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits might have been something more if Gosling and Stone had starred in them.
Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra actually pause every now and then to frame their characters in the shiny Californian locations, and aside from their ability to showcase Carrell’s nose in hitherto unseen dimension, they prove that they’ve moved on from the brash cynicism of their directorial debut, I Love You Phillip Morris. The film is funny but never raunchy, and the idea of sex as a part of love is suggested but never really dwelt on. None of this is revelatory, but as the characters swing back and forth between pursuing and giving up on whom they want, Crazy, Stupid, Love is nearly always engaging, surviving even the intervention required to tie everything together. This is what Hollywood is supposed to achieve, but rarely does.