Carell, Gosling a fine, funny pairing in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Cal (Steve Carell) gets his groove back in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“Bad Santa” fans, prepare to meet a kinder, gentler Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Indeed, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is far removed from the booze-soaked, potty-mouthed desperation of “Bad Santa” (Ficarra and Requa penned the script) or the all-out insanity of “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Maybe one too many ass jokes prompted the duo to venture into calmer waters with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” a romantic comedy with strong performances and several tongue-in-cheek jabs at rom-com gimmicks.

Casting Steve Carell as Cal Weaver, a nice-but-oft-befuddled 40ish father and husband, was the first smart move (if not a stroke of genius, because who could play Joe Husband better than Carell?). He’s got the best face in the business for communicating bemusement and heartbreak, and rare is the actor who can locate humor in a moment of complete emotional devastation. For Cal, that moment is the dinner where his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces she’s cheated on Cal and wants a divorce. It’s one of those inherently human situations where the shock is too great to predict the emotional fallout. Cal’s so dumbfounded he can’t speak, leading him to roll out of a moving car to avoid any more of Emily’s confessions. Within a few days he’s moved into a grim little apartment and parked himself at a chi-chi local bar, yammering drunkenly about his troubles (Carell’s “I’m a cuckold” speech is hysterical) to anyone within earshot. Suave ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, who proves adept at comedy) takes pity on this unfortunately dressed soul and offers him lessons on how to rediscover his masculinity (step one: ditch the sneaks-and-khakis getup).

 
Jacob and Cal’s unlikely friendship is a high point of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because it gives Carell and Gosling, both choice character actors, ample opportunities to play off each other’s quite different comedic styles. Carell is never better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s trying to pick up women (Marisa Tomei has a fun cameo as Cal’s first post-breakup “score”). On the other end of the spectrum is Gosling, who tends to pick dramatic roles and do amazing things with them. His comedy comes from a place of self-confidence and trends toward random observational humor, such as his sheepish admission to new love Hannah (Emma Stone, delightful) that he stole his big “close-the-deal” move straight from “Dirty Dancing” (he uses the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song and everything). That, really, is the appeal of Carell and Gosling as pals: They’re so dissimilar you’d never match them up as a funny guy pair, but together they’re terrific.
 
Not all the pairings in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” work quite so well, though. The subplot involving Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bob) and his infatuation with babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) is sweet but not particularly interesting, especially considering that Jessica has a raging crush on Cal. (The whole bit with her snapping nude photos to prove to him she’s not a kid is just awkward.) Kevin Bacon doesn’t generate much heat with Moore as David Lindhagen, the man who effectively broke up Emily and Cal’s marriage. Moore and Carell do have the sometimes weary chemistry of a long-married couple (their scene outside Robbie’s parent-teacher conference is wrenching). Still, even they can’t quite hold a candle to Stone and Gosling, whose budding relationship essentially runs away with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” These two are dynamite together, and they develop a believable, tentative first-love kind of intimacy that’s a nice juxtaposition to Emily and Cal’s well-worn but deep affection for one another. Even when Dan Fogelman’s script takes a few missteps (like the Big Speech Ending), it’s these two relationships — one winding down, the other gearing up — that make “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” a cut above most romantic comedies. 
 
Grade: B+

Nimble “Zombieland” a bloody good time

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

No matter how intelligent, urbane and evolved we humans fancy ourselves, there’s just no getting around it: Nothing beats watching a slobbering, crusty, stinking zombie get his skull smashed with a mallet. Or a baseball bat. Or a tire iron. Why is this so  satisfying? Because zombies, you see, exist solely to get murdalized.

And boy do they ever in “Zombieland,” a gonzo, bloody, ridiculously entertaining movie about a world overrun with mindless flesh-eaters and the two wildly different survivors — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie killer extraordinaire, and the timid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) — who join forces more out of sheer boredom than any desire for human companionship. They are, we assume, the only humans to survive the fallout of a brain-swelling disease passed through cattle meat. And Tallahassee and Columbus kill a lot of zombies. Heaps of them. The hulking morons get slaughtered in such gleefully creative ways it makes me wonder if Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who penned the script, are brilliantly inventive or just didn’t get out much. It matters not. The kills (no, I’m not going to list them for you) are what make “Zombieland” wicked good.

Know what else makes “Zombieland” so entertaining? The characters, which sneak up on you in the midst of all those inventive ZKs (some are clear contenders for Zombie Kill of the Week). There’s something sweet and touching about the shy Columbus’ self-awareness; it’s obvious he understands that he let his fear — of girls, of clowns, of  life — cut off avenues for connection and emotional intimacy. Eisenberg, who should have Michael Cera quaking in his vintage cargo pants, drops these verbal bombshells with just the right amount of frankness and regret. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” he laments when he realizes his hot neighbor has morphed into a zombie. There’s far more bittersweet candor in this line than there has to be in a movie about lumbering liver-chewers and the people who blast ‘em.

But back to the blasting. Columbus has managed to survive just fine using his rules, which include such gems as stressing the importance of cardio (“the fatties are the first to go”), the double tap (“don’t be afraid to use your ammunition”) and the perils of public restrooms. Tallahassee isn’t that cerebral. He’s a loner with nothing to lose and a mean hankering for Twinkies, and he’s transformed zombie killing into an art form. (Notice his nod to “Deliverance.” It’s thing of beauty.) These two make for an unusual pair, and their unconventional family gets even weirder when they happen upon Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who share a talent for working the short con. All four head off in search of a place where zombies don’t dwell, and along the way they end up in the posh home of the Greatest Movie Star in History.

(INTERJECTION: If there’s still a chance as small as a zombie’s IQ that you don’t know about the cameo, do NOT let anyone ruin it for you. Turn off your TV and Internet and radio, go all Howard Hughes and hoard tissue boxes to avoid genuine human contact – do whatever you have to do preserve the blessed element of surprise.)

So the body count and the gore, right? Completely disgusting, thoroughly enjoyable and mostly devoid of any of the sociopolitical commentary George Romero made famous. Nope, “Zombieland” is all about the sheer, unbridled joy of undead killin’, and it takes human form inTallahassee, played with characteristic drawl and zeal by Harrelson. (See, Christian Bale? Acting can be fun!) But the writers pepper in plenty of deadpan humor, and they make some half-hearted noise about how we should conquer our fears, learn to need people, seize the day. This touchy-feely stuff might seem out of place if not for Eisenberg, who gives “Zombieland” the very last thing anyone would expect: a heart. 

Grade: B+

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