Earlier this month, not long after Suz and I celebrated 20 years of extraordinarily blessed marriage, I ran across a news story with an encouraging perspective on marriage in America: A study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that nearly 75 percent of couples married 10 years or more consider themselves “very in love,” “intensely in love” or even “very intensely in love.”
Emily and Cal (Julianne Moore and Steve Carell), who have been married for 17 years, might not put themselves anywhere on that spectrum. In fact, Crazy, Stupid, Love opens with Emily blindsiding Cal with the news that she wants a divorce. In spite of this, and in spite of some problematic issues, it is ultimately a movie about the possibility of long-term marital happiness, and the value of sticking it out with the person you love despite the difficulties that most of us have at some point or other.
How well does Cal take Emily’s news? Not well. Whatever hopes Emily may have of an amicable parting are probably diminished when Cal gets out of the car Emily’s driving while she’s driving it. Later Cal finds himself at a bar talking more or less continuously to everyone and no one, brooding wonderingly over the neglected word “cuckold,” and the fact of its comparative neglect, and all the ways in which it can be applied to his own situation, in both verb and noun form, in many different sentences involving himself, his wife and a coworker named David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon).
Other parties to Emily’s and Cal’s story include (a) their 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo of Zathura) and (b) 17-year-old babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), (c) an inveterate barfly lothario named Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who is so appalled by Cal’s dearth of masculine self-respect that he takes on Cal as the object of an improbable dudely Pygmalion makeover project, (d) a young law student named Hannah (Emma Stone) who is the only woman in the movie to pass on a come-on from Jacob, but whose presence in the movie isn’t readily explicable if she isn’t eventually going to connect with him, and (e) a middle-aged schoolteacher named Kate (Marisa Tomei) who must really want to meet guys, considering that she’s five years sober yet hangs out at the bar.
As the movie unfolds, crisscrossing lines emerge connecting these characters to one another in polyvalent, sometimes surprising ways. Pretty much everyone involved does gravely immoral things, and while Crazy, Stupid, Love has quite a bit of good stuff to say about its characters’ bad behavior, some immoral actions are depicted in an indulgent or otherwise problematic light.
In spite of these problems, I’m struck by the movie’s generosity and empathy toward all its characters, and by its frank, countercultural clarity that acts such as adultery, divorce, casual sex and promiscuity — however understandable they may sometimes be, and however seemingly rewarding they may feel at the time — not only don’t lead to lasting happiness, not only are obstacles to true happiness, but ultimately bring a great deal of unhappiness, not only for oneself and one’s loved ones, but also to other people as well that another movie might not consider at all.
The scenes in which Cal mutely tumbles from the moving car and natters on at the bar about being cuckolded vividly express the pain and humiliation caused by adultery. Yet, in hindsight, they’re also connected to longstanding problems that contributed to Emily’s susceptibility to temptation in the first place. There’s no attempt to justify her straying, but we are asked, in the end, to understand it.
Cal’s later actions wind up hurting Emily, and the movie has surprising insight regarding how philandering words and emotions can cut deeper, perhaps especially for a woman, than the bodily act of infidelity. Yet we also see how another vulnerable character is wounded by Cal’s bad behavior. The movie is also attentive to how parents’ marital crises hurt their children and their children’s ability to form healthy relationships of their own.
Jacob’s playboy lifestyle is also eventually cross-examined, and there’s a touching and romantic scene in which a night with one of the many women he’s taken home winds up going in a completely unexpected direction. Can it be that Jacob will ultimately find that Cal is as much a role model to him as the other way around?
Perhaps. Despite this, though, there’s no getting around the glamorizing of Jacob’s womanizing ways. For one thing, there’s his uniform success at picking up every women he hits on, and the appearance of complete satisfaction both for him and the women, until the day that he discovers something deeper. Nothing debunks this parade of casual sex while it lasts; there’s no down side, no disappointment, regret, shame or guilt. Just a hedonist dream world, and then, one day, a new life. (To cross-examine just the issue of Jacob’s uniform success, the social reality is that aggressive male players who succeed with a lot of women do so precisely because they’re risk-takers who aren’t afraid of failure; they’re willing to fail, frequently, in order to succeed as often as they do.)
There isn’t even any indication that Jacob’s previous fantasy lifestyle makes it difficult for him to transition to a meaningful relationship with a good girl — no suggestion that he’s hampered by any baggage, or that his dream girl harbors resentments or has misgivings about his past. Their first night together, as moving as it is in some ways, also makes Jacob too good to be true. (To put it overly spoilerifically: She comes to him for the swell sex that is his stock in trade, but on some level she wants something else — and, on a dime, he delivers that instead.)
Then there’s the teenaged autoeroticism and naked photos. (Spoilers follow. Sorry, no way around it.)
See, 13-year-old Robbie has a mad crush on his babysitter Jessica. After she has accidentally found him, to their mutual horror, in a compromised position in his bedroom, he approaches her and shamefacedly apologizes — but he also unabashedly professes his love for her, and even, despite her intense discomfort, affirms her privileged place (too much information!) in his fantasy life.
Jessica, though, has a crush of her own, on an older man — and, on the advice of a trashy girl at school, decides to try to get his attention by taking naked pictures of herself for him. Fortunately the photos are never delivered — but in the end, moved by the feel-good conviviality of the happy ending, Jessica indulgently makes a gift of the photos to her young admirer Robbie, adding, with a kiss on the cheek, that they’ll “help him get through high school.” Thus the film tolerantly winks at Robbie’s masturbatory fantasies while treating teenaged self-exploitative photography in a troublingly cavalier way.
There’s no excusing these objectionable elements, but they’re peripheral enough that they didn’t spoil my appreciation of the more central positive elements. I don’t blame anyone for deciding on the basis of the content advisory alone that Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t the movie for them. Yet it’s also improbably sweet, funny, insightful and good-hearted, and embraces all of its characters while also challenging them to acknowledge their missteps and learn from them. Despite everything, it’s a flawed but likable film about flawed but likable people. If you can bracket the problematic content, what’s left may reward you.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.