It was sitting in the theater right before Crazy, Stupid, Love got started that I was reminded of the kind of romantic comedies I despise. It was the trailer for New Year's Eve, director Garry Marshall's spiritual sequel to last year's Valentine's Day. Essentially ripping off the structure of Richard Curtis's great Love Actually (right down to the look of its theatrical poster). VD --which I would prefer to be diagnosed with as opposed to seeing again--boasted a huge ensemble cast of famous faces playing cute in an overlong, unchallenging and ersatz bore of mediocre attractiveness. In essence, New Year's Eve looks like a literal carbon copy, right down to the poster design (setting a record in meta-derivative) and Ashton Kutcher's hated existence.
Fortunately, it was a good reminder to get right before Crazy, Stupid, Love, underscoring the contrast between pusillanimous crap and an ably-written, adeptly told story that toys with genre conventions just enough to set itself apart, while being sharp enough to subtly wink at itself and still get away with being taken seriously.
Steve Carell is Cal Weaver, a happy but complacent husband to Emily (Julianne Moore) and father to his thirteen year old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo). Over an otherwise routine dinner, Cal learns that Emily has been cheating on him with an office colleague, David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) and wants a divorce.
Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling) a Bugatti of a ladies man who, after striking out with the vivacious Hannah (Emma Stone) meets Cal in a bar--where he's drunkenly berating the name Lindhagen for any and all to hear. Jacob proposes that he help get Cal back on his romantic feet by putting him though an Eliza Doolittle-esque course that starts with some new clothes and continues with observing Jacob, as he proceeds to get more bumper than a used car salesman. Sure enough, after a one night stand with Kate (Marisa Tomei), Cal gets his groove back.
But the pull of his old life weighs as heavily on Cal as it does on Emily. The unrequited first love of their son for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) rounds out the circle of romantic discontent in their broken family.
There were a few clues that Crazy, Stupid, Love might rise above the typical romantic dramedy swill. Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore seem to possess reliable radars for good projects. The other two clues are the directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa best known as the writing team behind the acerbically hilarious Bad Santa and the directors of the alarmingly entertaining and under seen, I Love You, Phillip Morris.
Despite the script (by Dan Fogelman) faltering into coincidental comedy conventions toward the end--and the barely-there rational for Jacob's befriending of Cal (he's a ladies man with Daddy issues, apparently)--the story is on mostly solid ground that's elevated by the direction of Ficarra and Requa. They find a nice balance between the narrative's dramatic elements and mirth, the former rendered often poignantly by the fine performances of a cast who are just as adept at sliding with the script into comedy with a sense of aplomb Ficarra and Requa honed on Phillip Morris but that here seems more organic.
Lensed by Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park), Crazy, Stupid, Love's look employs a fairly subdued visual style, letting the scenes breathe to fine affect. One in particular, where Carell is coming to grips with the ache for his old life is beautifully acted to the point that I consciously realized I had not thought once of Michael Scott (or, thankfully, Dinner for Schmucks) and is so nicely framed that Carell's able performance gained some cinematic weight.
Carell, while not really breaking any new ground, should get more credit for possessing skills commiserate with those of his co-stars, Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore. Gosling oozes smooth charm and an oddly boyish masculinity ("My God, you already look Photoshopped.") while bringing the acting chops that made him an Oscar contender as Dan Dunn in 2006s, Half Nelson. Here he dials up the wattage as an uber-confident ladies' man who is obviously covering for some emotional insecurity issues. Gosling makes what could have been a caricature ring much more truly--even after a somewhat telegraphed plot twist that turns the film more firmly toward the conventional. It's inspired convention, at least.
Julianne Moore is wonderfully cast as Emily. She can really nail that discontented wife character (Chloe) and turns in a fine performance across from Kevin Bacon, doing that thing where he's kind of creepy and likeable all at once. I'm not hating the Bacon. He's fun here, even if it seems like he's bordering on oversaturation these days.
Emma Stone is typically effervescent and sarcastic (and likeable) as Hannah--oddly, there's a subplot that tangentially involves The Scarlett Letter in perhaps a hat tip to Easy A--while Analeigh Tipton is sweetly genuine as Jessica. Jonah Bobo turns in a funny, confident performance that rounds out a near uniformly wonderful cast doing sometimes great work. Marisa Tomei isn't given much to do (or work with from the page) rendering her more or less a plot device than anything else.
It has a couple of bumps. But it's also funny enough and sweet enough, while mostly avoiding outright schmaltz enough (though barely) to be guiltlessly good and undeniably funny. Though I wish there were an R-rated version, Crazy, Stupid, Love capitalizes on two of the words in its title. Neither of them is stupid.
Apparently, I have to see A Cock and Bull Story. I want to see more of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon being mean to each other.
The Trip first enjoyed life as a BBC Two comedy series chronicling the adventures of Coogan and Brydon, playing adapted versions of themselves (characters they've reprised from A Cock and Bull Story) as they trek across northern England on a food tour.
Coogan, who is covering the tour as a guest columnist with The Observer--a gig he got as an excuse to go on holiday with his ever more distant girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley)--is forced to ask Brydon to accompany him after Mischa decides to take a "break" from the relationship and return to America.
What a Trip.
Disconcerted and suspicious, Coogan has to put up with Brydon's incessant impersonations of Michael Caine and Roger Moore (among many others, most of them dead on) as they go from inn to inn eating, drinking and competing for the self-appointed best Michael Caine and Roger Moore impersonations.
Coogan writes nothing because he had only planned on writing down whatever Mischa might say. The breadth of his opinion on a bowl of tomato soup is confined to "Yes, it was soupy." A plan to bed Mischa in the room Samuel Coolidge once did drugs in is not only thwarted by her absence but by his ignorance of 17th Century narcotics (he seems disappointed that Coolidge didn't shoot heroin).
Worse, he's wracked with self-doubt in his acting career as he grouses about Michael Sheen getting all the film roles he auditions for and dreading the idea of being stuck on a British TV show (sweet irony!). At each consecutive stopover he attempts to bed the maid even as he hikes across country to get a signal in order to call Mischa and obsess about her fidelity. When attempting to cross a river on stepping stones Brydon yells to him, "You're stuck in a metaphor!"
Brydon, a family man who oddly mimics Hugh Grant in order to entice his wife to phone sex, is a perfect foil for Coogan's caddish, conflicted narcissism; countering it with his subtly held demeanor of biological superiority. And he does the better Michael Caine ("Shay whus own-lay fef-teen yaz owld!"). Cruelly jabbing at each other's personal and professional deficiencies comes as naturally to them as blood pudding with breakfast and their amiably combative conversations tend to liven up the stuffily appointed restaurants they hang out in, killing with a thousand verbal cuts.
Michael Winterbottom is as diverse a director as could be hoped for. From the pulsating, exciting 24 Hour Party People and the pornographically daring, musical dream-place 9 Songs to his searing documentary The Road to Guantanamo and his equally searing adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom kind of delights merely in the eclecticism of his creative choices.
Far from the haunting The Killer Inside Me, The Trip is so light hearted and alive that it underscores Winterbottom's mastery of tone while making you wonder how the same guy made both films.
Told in an odd blend of narrative and documentary style (here's mastery for you, in a dream sequence he makes Ben Stiller funny) The Trip has the feel of a Top Gear Challenge. Cut down from the original six-hour series, the pacing is episodic (the five day trip is punctuated by title cards that recall The Shining without the portentous music) making for a movie that feels a bit overlong, where individual episodes of the show might make for a more rewarding telling, broken into more palatable bites. The Mischa sub-plot is almost entirely pointless.
But that's a quibble. The film is fucking hilarious and it's a joy to watch Coogan and Brydon (playing off their respective subtlety and lack of it) go at each other with that sublimely cruel British resentfulness of a friend's success. Clearly, there are many scripted elements to The Trip but it's when the improvisation takes over that Coogan and Brydon shine. Their stream-of-conscious interplay is injected with often hysterical mimicry (Coogan's Billy Connelly impersonation would fool his mother) as they place their favorite actors into historically inappropriate battles to pass the time or break into song--the competition unrelenting as Brydon proves his 3-octave range.
It's incredibly self-aware, which is the key to its success. As a vehicle for two egomaniacal and wickedly imaginative comedians, The Trip is nothing more than a funny as hell ride.
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