Not crazy, just stupid
Is this the state of rom-com today? Talent and effort and mucho production budget, creating a huge, yawning 'meh' of a movie?
So we have Cal (Steve Carell) married to Emily (Julianne Moore)--and right there credibility just zoomed straight out a window. Try as I might, and I did try for about the length of the picture, I just could not picture Emily marrying Cal short of Emily suffering from, oh, severe mental retardation, or Cal possessing a stack of incriminating photos. She's just too much woman for that wimp.
But--okay, granted we swallow this premise, hook, line, sinker, whale--Emily straight away tells Cal she wants a divorce, because she had an affair; Cal promptly tosses himself out of the speeding car. Nice jolt of a moment, but the gesture sets you up for a movie full of Carell committing all kinds of wild and wacky gestures and, well, this turns out to be his entire quota; nothing quite as out-of-left-field will happen again, though there is an eight-way confrontation late in the story that is intricately amusing, if not as startling.
Carell repeats the schtick he's mastered since Forty Year Old Virgin some four years before--the awkwardly sensitive fortysomething around which the world revolves (hey, he's the producer after all). His is the most fully written and realized character, of course, with every change in feeling or sensibility, every conflict or humiliation or wound to his pride dutifully recorded and given proper recognition. Everyone else trails from far behind, and the women in particular suffer from a lack of character detail--Emma Stone's Hannah, an up-and-coming lawyer, only pops up once in a while until the big reveal (you keep thinking she belongs in another picture entirely--and that is a dead giveaway, plotstructurewise); Ryan Gosling's Jacob, who teaches Cal how to pick up women, is an unlikely confection (he spends so much waking hours chasing women you wonder how he amassed enough money for his awe-inspiring bachelor's pad--is he really a rich kid (where's his rich family, then?)? A drug dealer? Maybe Carell should be a little more careful about associating with him...). Granted Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), the family babysitter who Cal's son has the hots for and who in turn has the hots for Cal, is a reasonably rounded character--but, you keep suspecting, that's only because she's such an important plot function to the storyline of both males.
Most egregious example is Emily--who is she? I mean, really? Gorgeous wife, hot mother, great actress. we don't know what she's like with the kids (besides a four-minute wordless pantomime through glass windows), we don't know what the kids think of her new boyfriend, we don't know what she sees in Cal (hell, we don't know what she was smoking when she saw Cal--I'd at least want to know that much), and we don't know what made her precipitate her affair with the infamous David Linhagen (Kevin Bacon as--believe it or not--the most likeable male in the movie), or why she chokes it off when she does. There are hints of an unhappy, complicated person here--Moore is more than good enough an actress to suggest this--but she's working with thin material. You're constantly aware that all the focus is the prod--sorry, husband.
Of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, former writing team (Bad Santa 2003) turned directors (I Love You Philip Morris 2009) one has expectations, but combined with Dan Fogelman, who wrote the script (not to mention Cars (2006), Fred Claus (2007) Bolt (2008), Tangled (2010), Cars 2 (2011)--guy apparently believes in quantity over quality), the fusion is more family friendly, decidedly toothless. As is true with practically every recent comedy the look is sitcom flat and undistinguished (what was the last good-looking comedy I'd seen? Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet? Maybe. Last good-looking rom-com I'd seen? Wow--Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation” (2003), perhaps?).
Rom-com as a genre is dead, or at least close to total creative exhaustion, and I doubt if this will change matters much. The picture doesn't have the go-for-broke spirit of, oh, the Farrelly Brothers' Hall Pass (which has a penis joke that leaves this movie's penis joke feeling flaccid in comparison). It certainly doesn't have the crisp, swift wit of Steven Moffat, whose TV series Coupling (2000-2004) has four times the laughs, and twice the insight into what makes relationships work (better yet, Moffat manages to write a series of brilliantly hilarious monologues--usually delivered by Jack Davenport--that define clearly and definitively how relationships work). It doesn't even have the piercing romantic spirit and imagination (much less humor) of Moffat's 2006 script for the TV series Dr. Who (The Girl in the Fireplace).
Am I such an unsentimental old curmudgeon, demanding so much of my romantic comedies? I don't think so; I just like to think I have standards, is all.
First published in Businessworld, 8.18.11