In a time before raunchy, R-rated laffers competed for the how-low-can-you-go prize, the demand for mature, grown-up romantic comedies resulted in pics as wise and wonderfully character-driven as “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Old-fashioned as that might sound, there’s a fresh, insightful feel to this multigenerational love story, in which square dad Steve Carell finds himself taking dating tips from ultra-slick ladykiller Ryan Gosling after getting tossed back into the singles scene. Instead of forcing the material to go high-concept or lowbrow, Warner Bros. trusts a first-rate cast and rock-solid script to sell auds. Response should be upbeat for this refreshingly upscale offering.
Though it refuses to be reduced to a simple, one-sentence pitch, “Crazy, Stupid’s” various storylines revolve around the shattered love life of happily married Cal (Carell), who has a midlife crisis foisted upon him when Emily (Julianne Moore), his wife of nearly 30 years, files for divorce. No magic body-swapping. No talking hand puppet. Just a sincere, soulful look at how someone who married his high-school sweetheart and never once imagined himself with another woman adjusts to being alone.
As written by Dan Fogelman (a Disney-Pixar vet whose credits include “Tangled” and “Cars”) and directed by tonal tightrope walkers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris”), Cal is the heart-on-his-sleeve sort, prone to candid declarations of love and other sentimental gestures. Still, he doesn’t put up a fight when Emily breaks the bad news. Instead, after being elbowed out of the house, he sneaks into his former backyard to ensure that the rose bushes don’t perish — behavior Hollywood has trained us to recognize as admirably earnest, as opposed to borderline criminal.
By way of contrast, the film offers Jacob (Gosling), a pick-up artist so bored by the game, he spots Cal at the bar and offers to reinvent this loser in his own image. Impossibly ripped and tanned for the role, Gosling looks just vulnerable enough to overcome the character’s inherent sleaze factor — a quality that comes in handy later when the lothario finally meets his match. In the meantime, he’s the sex-magnet Mr. Miyagi to Cal’s inept Karate Kid, to borrow one of “Crazy, Stupid’s” endearingly old-school cultural references.
Act one feels familiar enough, complete with makeover montage as Jacob advises Cal on socially acceptable alternatives to his Supercuts haircut, New Balance sneakers and Velcro wallet. If “crazy” is throwing away a perfectly good marriage and “stupid” is not knowing how to pick yourself up off the floor, then “love” means never having to apologize for such fashion blunders. Divorce has made Cal accountable for his appearance again, and with Jacob’s help, even the family’s teenage babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) can’t resist his new look.
Back in the bar, Cal has no trouble scoring. He takes home an eager-to-please English teacher (Marisa Tomei, packing big laughs into a small role) and half a dozen others, his newfound confidence seen in one virtuoso tracking shot. Though relatively new to directing, “Bad Santa” scribes Requa and Ficarra clearly understand the conventions well enough to subvert them, relying just a bit too heavily on mellow songs to provide mood cues. Otherwise, the tech elements are topnotch: Ficarra began his career in an editing room — excellent training for future comedy directors that pays off here, as the pic hits a wide range of emotional notes amid its seriocomic soul-searching.
It’s a tricky juggling act they’ve set for themselves, as nearly everyone in the well-rounded ensemble faces relationship snares as confounding as Cal’s. Jacob finally succeeds in seducing the one girl who turned him down (Emma Stone), only to realize one night with her isn’t nearly enough. Emily tentatively dates the co-worker (Kevin Bacon) who cuckolded her husband. Even Cal’s 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), gets a romantic subplot, in which the poor kid crushes on the babysitter.
This latter development initially looks like a concession to younger auds, and yet on closer inspection, Robbie’s fixation reveals one of “Crazy, Stupid’s” key themes: When teens fall in love, they do it with everything they’ve got, braving humiliation and rejection in the belief that they’ve found the One. Why can’t grown-ups love like that, the film seems to ask. After all, Cal was only 15 when he met his match, and if that hopelessly naive kid could see himself three decades later, he’d never let his wife go.