Crazy, Stupid, Love undercuts its own romantic strengths in search of cheap laughs.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a pretty good romantic comedy that nevertheless illustrates some big problems with modern, mainstream American comedies. On the surface, it's a sophisticated rom-com romp about the travails of two attractive couples: Fortysomething marrieds Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are onetime high school sweethearts whose too-comfortable union is disrupted when Moore makes a surprising divorce request and admission of infidelity. Twentysomething singles Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone meet in a bar when Stone shoots down Gosling's too-slick pick-up lines but are fated — by the screenwriting gods, at least — for an unlikely future hook-up.

These two spheres begin to intertwine when Gosling's trust-funded lothario spots a schlubby Carell nursing watered-down cranberry-and-vodkas at a bar and muttering about being "cuckolded." Taking pity on his barroom companion — or maybe just bored — Gosling insists on helping the newly single Carell remake himself and "rediscover his manhood," turning him — after a gender-inversion of the typically female makeover montage — into an effective but unhappy serial womanizer in the process. Moore, meanwhile, spends most of her underwritten time second-guessing her divorce request and reluctantly pursuing a relationship with the co-worker (Kevin Bacon) with whom she initially cheated.

While all this is going on, recent law school grad Stone operates on a separate track, plotting her romantic future with at-times-unwanted input from an opinionated best friend (Liza Lapira, making great use of a small role). Stone's character will eventually connect back to the core plot in a big reveal many viewers are likely to see coming.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously helmed I Love You, Phillip Morris and wrote Bad Santa, but they have a difficult time finding the right tone here. In pursuit of the "crazy" and "stupid" in the title, some of the film's contrived farcical elements hit discordant notes. Ficarra and Requa's previous films were daring. Here, the would-be gonzo material feels safe and calculated instead.

Most of the problems emanate from miscalculated and potentially unnecessary secondary characters. Marisa Tomei may well be "the perfect blend of cute and sexy" as Carell's first singles-bar conquest, but her performance evolves into uncomfortable, embarrassing mugging. And more troublesome are some over-developed, easily excised subplots involving Carell and Moore's 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) and their 17-year-old babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) — tracks that meet in a weird final moment between the teens that might have worked in a broad, raunchy comedy like American Pie or a would-be subversive comedy like American Beauty. But in a movie that aims for a degree of realism and charm, it's just creepy and wrong.

Typical of this imperfect but effective film are a couple of wrong turns that turn out all right. A screwball cataclysm at a backyard party where several characters and plot strands — literally — collide flirts with disaster but ultimately creates the desired comic sparks even as it strains credibility. A climactic big speech in front of an entire eighth-grade graduation audience is a cringe-inducing, phony screenwriting conceit miraculously crafted into a workable scene.

But these high-wire acts only underscore the value of what truly works here. The self-aware seduction negotiation between Stone and Gosling — her critiquing his go-to moves while simultaneously falling for them — is one of the year's most enjoyable scenes. With her big bright eyes and vivid, lively performance, Stone is pure dynamite whenever she's on screen, while the at times fussy Gosling shows a surprising comic touch. This couple's flirty, prickly, sparkly courtship is the best thing the film has going for it. You wish the whole movie was about them, yet Crazy, Stupid, Love cruelly withholds Stone from us.

That Crazy, Stupid, Love spends more time on the dicey, more broadly comic teen subplots than the Stone/Gosling relationship is a near-fatal flaw. This pairing aches for a do-over or a sequel. The result is a movie worth recommending but one that feels too cognizant of imagined audience expectations and not confident enough in itself.

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Crazy, Stupid, Love
Rated PG-13 · 107 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.crazystupidlovemovie.com
Director: John Requa and Glenn Ficarra
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Marisa Tomei

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