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+

Review: “Blue Valentine” (2010)

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” ~~H.L. Mencken

Maybe at first in love imagination does win over intelligence, as Mencken argued. But it’s inevitable that imagination doesn’t get to keep winning. One day unpretty, rational thinking, the bills-and-dead-car-batteries reality, takes over. For the more resilient couples, this is merely the beginning of a new phase of love; in Derek Cianfrance’s vivid, heartbreaking drama “Blue Valentine,” it is the beginning of the end for Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Their fragile bond, built on the whimsy and giddiness of new love, cannot withstand the shift. And when the whimsy wears off, Dean and Cindy have nowhere to go but down.

With his focus on the whole story, told through flashbacks that blend the beginning, middle and end admirably, Cianfrance sets his film apart from other romantic dramas — or, to be more accurate, romantic melodramas. He does not paint over the ugly parts; nor does he allow “Blue Valentine” to descend into endless shrieking matches. Cianfrance also does not make the sweet moments of Dean and Cindy’s early courtship seem saccharine and larger-than-life. He starts the film when the 30something couple’s marriage is at the point of near-fracture. Dean’s fundamental lack of drive has begun to gnaw at Cindy, a nurse who wants to advance her career. What once seemed spontaneous and charming has become a constant source of frustration for Cindy. Dean, a hard-drinking house painter, can’t understand why just being Cindy’s husband and father to their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka), isn’t enough. He doesn’t buy into the concept of potential, so he doesn’t think he’s squandering his. Still, Dean has a good heart, and in an 11th-hour bid to rekindle some of the old spark he books a hotel room. But too much booze and too many exposed nerves turn the evening gut-wrenchingly sour.

Interspersed in these tense scenes are the early days of Cindy and Dean’s relationship, from their chance meeting at a nursing home — where Cindy is visiting her grandmother (Jen Jones) and Dean is moving furniture — and sweet first date to Cindy’s unexpected pregnancy and Dean’s clash with her volatile ex-boyfriend Dean (Mike Vogel). The flashbacks are rich in small but rich character details that Williams and Gosling underplay to great effect. Cindy’s interactions with her bullish father (John Doman) might explain her hunger for male attention and her attachment to Dean, the antithesis of violent-tempered men like her father. Dean’s attempt to woo Cindy — using a ukelele and a warbled love song — speaks to his tendency toward courtly love. He is a romantic at heart, an unrepentant one; there’s the suggestion that he sort of fancies himself the Prince Charming to Cindy’s distressed damsel. Nowhere does “Blue Valentine” capture this more beautifully than during Cindy and Dean’s impromptu courthouse wedding. They are caught thick in the haze of romance, wanting to rush forward, be reckless for the grand and heart-swelling cause of love. Underneath that love, though, there’s a tinge of desperation, the kind of subtle but vital emotion that only actors as compelling as Williams and Gosling could pull off.

To get to the gut level of this splintering relationship, Cianfrance relies on the intimacy of 16mm film and the dingy buildings in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. His true gift is making these locales change as Cindy and Dean’s relationship changes: at the start, these shop fronts and weedy concrete sidewalks seem inviting, whisper of promise. But near the end, they feel cool, dank and unwelcoming (the barroom hotel room lighting accomplishes this aim stunningly well). Remarkable as well are the gradual and sometimes painfully realistic changes Williams and Gosling give to their characters. The physical changes (both gained 15 pounds to play their 30-year-old selves) look authentic; what’s really incredible, however, is the way these actors adapt their characters. Both Williams and Gosling understand the power of body language and facial expressions. They are able to convey all aspects of Dean and Cindy’s life together with brutal clarity: the exciting spark of early romance; the shift to married life and raising a child; and their emotionally bruising final argument, the pressure-overwhelmed hole that causes the dam to break.    

 Grade: A

No. 46: “Lars and the Real Girl” (2008)

“Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.”
~~Dagmar

Acute loneliness can drive people to extremes. It drives the quiet, mild-mannered Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) to purchase Bianca, an anatomically correct life-size doll, online and make her his real-life girlfriend. No, this is not the set-up for an elaborate joke. Lars brings Bianca into his small social circle literally: She takes a room in his childhood home, now owned by Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his expecting wife Karin (Emily Mortimer); she attends church regularly; she volunteers at the local hospital. And because Bianca matters to Lars, she matters to the people that love him.

It’s hard to believe that “Lars and the Real Girls,” a film in which one of the main characters is a sex doll, could be anything other than juvenile or perverse. Believe it. With “Lars and the Real Girl,” director Craig Gillespie earns a giant heaping of forgiveness for the trainwreck that was 2007’s “Mr. Woodcock.” Certainly Nancy Oliver’s tender, funny script — an homage of sorts to Frank Capra — has something to do with the change. Oliver has crafted a love story so sweet-natured that resistance is pointless. Gosling, who relishes offbeat and challenging roles, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and nuance. He reveals much about the fiercely private Lars through the eyes only. Gosling’s character, in his self-imposed isolation, is a heartbreaking figure: a human being who has become a shell.

Lars, as a result of his isolated and sad childhood, has become a tactophobe and a functional hermit. Although Lars holds down a full-time job and attends church, people frighten him, so he avoids them. He comes up with hundreds of ways not to touch or be touched. He makes up lame excuses to avoid get-togethers with Gus and Karin, then sits alone in his grim, chilly little apartment in their backyard. Around his coworkers — particularly Margo (Kelli Garner), who finds him cute if a bit odd — he’s twitchy and guarded. And Lars seems content with this lonesome existence until he catches his cubiclemate salivating over a website that sells life-size sex dolls. Six weeks later, Lars brings Bianca to dinner with Gus and Karen. (Their stunned reaction is the film’s most hilarious scene.) Lars has prepared a detailed history for his new love that explains her immobility and strange outfit (her wheelchair and suitcase were stolen), her muteness (she’s very shy) and her aversion to staying with Lars (she’s a missionary). Gus declares his brother “totally insane,” but local psychiatrist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, warm and wonderful as ever) sees Lars’ behavior as a positive step. “Bianca’s in town for a reason,” she notes, and urges them to play along. Spurred on by the no-nonsense, plainspoken Mrs. Gruner (a frank, funny Nancy Beatty), the townspeople welcome Bianca into their homes.

What’s disarming about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way that this decision reflects not lunacy, but kindness. There’s not a scene where Oliver paints Lars as a pathetic or creepy figure, or where the script makes a joke at his expense. The film’s gentle comedy emerges from the town’s bumbling but loving attempts to accept Bianca. She’s given a “part-time job” at the mall, gets a hair cut, goes to the doctor, accompanies Lars to an after-hours party with all his coworkers — and through it all, the only chuckles come from the awkward business of pretending that a doll is a real person. The sincerity tempers the laughter somewhat in the movie’s most touching scenes, like Gillespie’s lingering, unbroken and beautiful shot of Lars frozen on the doorstep, unsure whether to join his coworker’s party. The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses make him want to flee; Bianca, however, gives him the courage to push the doorbell. “Lars and the Real Girl” is filled with small moments like this, but they build to a wrenching, strangely hopeful conclusion. Clarkson and Schneider are quietly powerful, while Gosling is nothing shy of a revelation. Even in the darkest moments, Gosling finds hope and determination in a man we believed years dead to this world.

The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

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