"You're the perfect combination of sexy and cute" is the invincible pickup line for Ryan Gosling's ladykiller character in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." That fits the movie's delightfully contradictory qualities, too. It's romantic, touching, a little risqué and screwball, yet reassuringly down-to-earth.
At the center of things is bland, pleasant Cal, the human equivalent of Muzak (Steve Carell, playing it straight and never better). Over a dull, date-night dinner, his wife of 30 years, Emily (Julianne Moore), announces that she's having an affair and demands a divorce. Cal, shellshocked, steps out of their moving car on the way home, landing hard on the rocky road of midlife singlehood.
Soothing his bruises with meat-market vodka-and-cranberry, Cal wins the sympathetic attention of pickup king Jacob (Gosling). He teasingly tutors the 50-year-old near-virgin in the ways of courtship circa 2011. Yet this is no mismatched-buddies bro comedy. Dan Fogelman (writer of the ingeniously funny cartoons "Bolt" and "Tangled") adds appeal to the premise through multigenerational complications. The movie includes several whammies guaranteed to leave your jaw on the floor.
The story expands to include Emily's midlife crisis and her halfhearted romance with an accountant colleague (Kevin Bacon) who promises to become a duplicate copy of the sweet, bland bore she has just fled. Enchantingly saucy fledgling lawyer Hannah (the always-exemplary Emma Stone) accompanies a friend to the pickup bar, becoming the only woman to resist Jacob's precision-honed come-ons, and thus the one who captures his playboy heart. Old pro Marisa Tomei makes a big mark in a brief role as Cal's overenthusiastic first hookup. Young Jonah Bobo gives an attractive, unforced turn as the divorcing couple's lovesick 13-year-old, and as his wallflower baby sitter, Minnetonka native Analeigh Tipton delivers a performance that is a sustained feat of magic. Unless I miss my guess, this huge-eyed, coltish beauty will be a very big thing in short order.
I won't say more about the plot, and what I have told so far isn't what really matters. The film emphasizes character and emotional values over jokes for their own sake. What makes the movie so interesting are the small incidents -- offhand exchanges where ironic banter contains the odd lance of stinging truth, little moments of life observed in telling and persuasive detail. Every significant character in the film is forging a new life in a new world, where the old certainties and simplicities and optimism about happily-ever-after are outdated, a dilemma presented with amusement and chagrin. The movie is at its best when the cast is trying to shinny up the greased pole of romantic frustration. The conventionally sentimental and warmhearted ending feels misjudged, a forgivable flaw in a work full of carefully observed life.
As the woebegone Mr. Average, Carell has a wonderful way of scrunching up his face into a smile of agony, while Gosling shows a sly knack for comedy as the Top Gun of the singles scene. Stone has a wonderful sort of charm, the gift of conferring excitement onto whatever takes her interest and making that enthusiasm contagious. There's a scene in a wine shop where she sneaks up behind Gosling and bites his shoulder as if it was a peach. You think, "That must have hurt, and it must have felt great." The film is funny throughout but it has something better, a kind of rambunctious authenticity that quietly infiltrates your heart. You leave the film with the feeling of having made four or five interesting new friends.