Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)

It’s a testament to Crazy, Stupid, Love, directed by Bad Santa writers Glen Ficcara and John Requa, that it feels nothing like a romantic comedy. It is one, of course, hitting all of the often insufferable genre’s standard beats at a familiar pace. But how Ficcara and Requa, along with screenwriter Dan Fogelman, navigate through the potentially dangerous rom-com terrain is what’s most remarkable about this endlessly charming and genuinely touching dramedy. The characters are all fleshed-out and appealing, and the actors on board deliver their best.

Whereas in most films of this ilk there’s a participant or two you’d like to smack with a box full of Hallmark cards, Crazy, Stupid, Love is inhabited by sympathetic, funny, and palpably conflicted types. You know, the exact opposite of damn near every other romantic comedy that’s seen release over the last few years.

That’s what happens when directors are fortunate enough to work with a cast as superlative as Ficcara and Requa’s. Steve Carell, who’s also one of the film’s producers, makes a great case for leaving The Office; if he’s ready to give performances as alternately funny and poignant as he does here, we’ll gladly stop dreading a world without Michael Scott. Much of Carell’s comedic heft in Crazy, Stupid, Love is owed to having such a revelatory co-star riding shotgun; as the perennial ladies man, Ryan Gosling, not exactly an obvious choice for the role, tears through one-liners and hilariously deadpan and self-righteous monologue with the force of a career-long funnyman.

Crazy, Stupid, Love weaves through a trio of interconnected stories, an overzealous narrative trope that habitually sinks romantic cinema; look no further than recent overcrowded heaps of schmaltzy goo He’s Just Not That Into You and Valentine’s Day. With a firm grasp on his characters’ interior motivations and exterior charms, Fogelman maps out a largely familiar, save for a carefully hidden last act twist, saga of heartache and heart-wake that affords each of its characters sufficient breathing room. And since there’s not an abhorrent sod in the lot, Crazy, Stupid, Love is a maturely crafted joy from top to bottom.

You know, unlike the majority of modern rom-coms that exist solely to satiate, say, Jennifer Aniston’s agent.

Its Hook May Be Comedy, But Crazy, Stupid, Love Sustains Through Its Deeper Moments

Emma Stone’s handlers, however, can entertain as many sappy love story scripts as they want. One of several winning ladies in Crazy, Stupid, Love, she exemplifies the film’s biggest strength. Stone plays Hannah, a twenty-something happily matched with a successful young businessman (Josh Groban), who, despite his epic game and how her best friend eye-fucks him throughout their exchange, rejects Gosling’s usually successful playboy, Jacob, in a swanky lounge. For Jacob, who’s used to sexy chicks succumbing to his deeply conceived small talk, Hannah’s resistance lingers in his head long after she exits the venue, even as he’s knocking down a string of nameless supermodel-types.

Juxtaposed with Jacob’s uncommon failure is Cal’s (Carell) disintegrating marriage to his wife of 25 years, Emily (a wonderfully vulnerable Julianne Moore). She hits him with the D-word (“divorce”) during a car ride home from an awkward restaurant visit, which prompts Cal to dive out of their moving vehicle, headfirst into an alien bachelor’s life. The family’s 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton, a real breakout), quietly cheers, since she’s in “love” with the much older Cal; too bad for Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who proclaims his affections for Jessica in a variety of embarrassing public displays.

Most films of this ilk leave you wanting to smack characters with a box full of Hallmark cards; Crazy, Stupid, Love, however, is inhabited by sympathetic and funny ones.

In Jacob’s haunt of choice one night, the überconfident lady slayer reads Cal, at the bar drowning his sorrows and striking out with the opposite sex, the riot act. It’s at this point that Crazy, Stupid, Love takes on a Hitch presence, with Jacob walking Cal through a How To Pick Up Girls!-styled tutorial and escorting him to trendy clothing shops for an extreme makeover. Soon, Cal’s bagging women left and right, after a cherry-popping one-night stand with a brunette stunner (Marisa Tomei) who’s later revealed to be his son’s teacher. And that’s where the real drama surfaces.

Like they did in last year’s underrated Jim Carrey collaboration I Love You, Philip Morris, Ficcara and Requa locate a fine middle ground between raucous humor and tender emotion. Chances are, ticket-buyers will flock for the former, thanks to the film’s commercials positing it as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but what they’ll quickly learn is that Crazy, Stupid, Love works even best when it's sidestepping laughs to exercise moving sentiments. A bedroom heart-to-heart for Gosling and Stone (yes, Jacob gets his girl) delicately fills Gosling’s character with a rich back-story without overdoing it, and the actors’ chemistry makes the characters’ growing bond believable and, dare we say it, sweet.

Similarly, a later moment in which Cal chats with his estranged spouse via cell phone, while standing outside her window unbeknownst to his equally grieving ex, yanks at the heartstrings but in no way triggers groans. In any other lovesick movie, the scene very likely would have punished one’s patience with cheesy Top 40 pop music and artificial sorrow; Carell and Moore, however, sell the pain and bitter happiness like pros, and Ficcara and Requa wisely let their performers do the heavy lifting, minus any bells and whistles.

Even When It Stumbles, Crazy, Stupid, Love Wins

It’s a minor shame, then, that Crazy, Stupid, Love yields to generic impulses near its end. Tipton’s plotline, so vibrant and well handled for the first two-thirds of the film, crashes into an out-of-place T&A coda, with a desperation move for Cal’s attention that involves a camera and no bra, which, as nice as that sounds for male viewers, would be more at home in one of those American Pie straight-to-DVD sequels. Equally burdened by a half-assed conclusion is Carell, who manages to save face in the midst of an extremely hokey final speech that should leave rom-com cynics feeling intense déjà vu.

Yet, in those uncharacteristically trite instances, though, Crazy, Stupid, Love never loses its pleasant impact. The performances are so unvaryingly tight that the film’s momentary lapses of reason come and go with little to no subsequent viewer-felt resentment. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s confident enough in its storytelling to present even its most impure of characters as benevolent; as Moore’s co-worker who sleeps with her, thus inspiring her divorce idea, Kevin Bacon earns some of the film’s greatest sympathy, in a homewrecker role that, normally, gets written as a cocksure douchebag.

Far superior to this weekend’s other big debut, Cowboys & Aliens, Crazy, Stupid, Love deserves to sit atop the box office throne come Monday morning—whether it will or not shall be determined, though we’re guessing it’ll wither beneath Marvel’s latest champion and Harry Potter’s swan song. Fingers crossed that Ficcara and Requa’s film turns some kind of profit, though—if Hollywood churns out more romantic comedies of this caliber, we might have a reason to never diss those Katherine Heigl flicks again. OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves now.

Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)