10 years since it first hit theaters, Crazy, Stupid, Love. endures as a romantic comedy done exactly right, an exemplar of its genre that presents its heart in its hands and a few tricks up its sleeve. Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (whose surprisingly light touch is a boon for the film’s talented cast) and written by Dan Fogelman (operating in the same ambitiously open-hearted register that would later yield his NBC series This Is Us), it’s a remarkably well-balanced film: At once disarmingly sincere and scintillatingly clever, sentimental but rarely schmaltzy, and populated by characters whose optimistic quests for love are both amusingly relatable and raw with feeling.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. opens at a high-end restaurant, where various couples out to dinner are playing footsie under the table, legs sliding coyly forward as body language does all the talking. The camera comes to rest on Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore), whose legs stay so rigidly planted to their respective sides they’re like oak trees growing in adjacent lots. When Emily tells Cal that she wants a divorce—and, what’s more, that she’s already set this in motion by sleeping with a coworker (Kevin Bacon)—the news doesn’t seem to shock him, though his eyes well with tears on the drive home.
Thrown reluctantly back into the dating scene even as he struggles to accept the end of his marriage, Cal drowns his sorrows at the local upscale lounge. There, between watered-down vodka cranberries, Cal meets resident lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who decides to make him over into a better man—or at least one slick enough to ditch the pleated khakis and land a new lover (or nine, as it were). Elsewhere, and unbeknownst to Cal and Emily, their son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is pining for the affections of older babysitter Jessica (Lio Tipton), whose efforts to let him down easy are stymied by the middle schooler’s earnest, if misplaced conviction that this love is worth fighting for. Meanwhile, Jacob finds himself drawn to aspiring lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone), the only bar regular who’s capable of resisting his normally bulletproof pickup lines—though she can’t quite hide her smile as he tries his luck, nor her curiosity about what would happen if she did go home with the hot guy from the bar.
As the film follows these hopeless romances in parallel, Crazy, Stupid, Love. weaves between its characters in order to offer each storyline some breathing room, to imbue each player with real personality and realistic imperfections. Once previously undisclosed connections between its characters come to light, the film builds toward a comical backyard fracas that unites everyone but leaves more than one relationship in tatters. Of course, in keeping with rom-com convention, the film then dusts off its downhearted characters with a pair of graduation speeches—one bitter, one sweet—that cast doubt on the inherent promise of a happy ending and encourage its characters to keep fighting for their own.
Feel-good fizz? Without a doubt. Critic Betsy Sharkey called Crazy, Stupid, Love. “a grand romantic gesture about grand romantic gestures” when the film was first released, and that’s about as definitive an encapsulation of the film as you’re likely to find. It’s a resolutely kind-hearted movie about good-natured people reaching for a happiness you think they deserve—and the rare romantic comedy that loves its characters as much as they love each other. Crazy, Stupid, Love. also benefits as a dramatic piece from its bold, elegantly executed roundelay structure, spanning three separate courtships that would appear doomed…were it not for the unabashed sincerity and perhaps inadvisable persistence of those characters involved.
The word “inadvisable” is especially key in the case of young Robbie, whose infatuation with Jessica starts out innocently enough before crossing the line into something much more uncomfortable—even if that discomfort leads to a few good jokes, like Robbie texting her that there’s a precedent for their love: “Demi Moore is 15 years older than Ashton Kutcher. They seem happy together…” But especially once the babysitter, nursing a secret crush on Cal, takes explicit photos in an equally misguided effort to catch the older man’s eye, Robbie’s pursuit leads the character in ickier directions. The film alludes to this obsession being Robbie’s way of coping with his parents’ divorce, but the big speech that caps everything off doesn’t exactly lead the kid to reckon with his behavior so much as reaffirm his hopeless-romantic worldview. In this respect, Robbie and Jessica’s storylines feel most like the film’s hat-tip to John Hughes’ high-school comedies, especially Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, with their empathy for the fraught emotions and unbearable awkwardness of crushes gone awry. (If the conduct of these lovestruck adolescents hasn’t aged entirely well, one could argue that’s half the point.)
Elsewhere, Cal’s quest to “reclaim his manhood” places him in the tradition of schlubby underdogs from Judd Apatow’s coming-of-middle-age dramedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, also starring Carell. Of course, given this focus, Cal’s arc is more bromantic with Jacob, his “Mr. Miyagi”-esque mentor, than it is romantic with Emily, who’s sidelined for much of the film. There’s a chic, cosmopolitan sensibility to Jacob, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. is intently fashion-focused. It’s almost like a gender-flipped, Canali-clad Clueless in scenes where this professional bachelor takes Cal under his wing, tossing his grubby New Balance sneakers off a balcony at the Westfield Century City Mall and forcing him to repeat this mantra: “I am better than the Gap.” Clothes maketh man, after all, and Jacob’s quick to identify Cal’s lack of sartorial instinct as a surefire sign that he’s lost sight of himself.
Jacob and Hannah’s mutual seduction, finally, forms the third and most lightly subversive corner of Crazy, Stupid, Love.’s love letter to the genre, as the film’s two wittiest characters talk their way around courtship rituals they consider cliché, ending up in each other’s hearts nonetheless. A pickup artist by trade, Jacob is caught off-guard by Hannah, who’s not entirely immune to his charms, but sees right through them. It’s an amusing, self-reflexive twist that these two end up seducing each other with movie references. Once Hannah dumps her milquetoast snooze of a boyfriend (a perfectly cast Josh Groban) and marches up to Jacob to plant a passionate kiss on him, Crazy, Stupid, Love makes its way to an all-time romantic-comedy moment. Soaked by the rain and back at Jacob’s bachelor pad, Hannah insists she came over for “the R-rated version of tonight,” rather than the PG-rated version she suspects she might get instead.
Jacob admits that he usually works Dirty Dancing into conversation, and that his ability to pull off the famous “lift” is something of a signature move. “It’s not going to work on me,” says Hannah, stoically. In his living room, she paces nervously. But when “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” starts playing, Hannah sprints toward Jacob and leaps into his arms. Jacob considers Patrick Swayze to be the ultimate aphrodisiac, and Hannah ultimately does very little to disavow him of this notion. As he lifts her high above his head, slowly twirling her then sliding her body down against his to bring her back to the ground, it’s a seduction for the ages; the smoldering heat of her gaze on the way down confirms as much. But as Crazy, Stupid, Love. revels in restaging such a beloved movie moment (for maximum sexual charge this time, rather than impassioned athleticism), the scene doubles as a warm, winking salute to romantic comedies and their larger-than-life declarations of love.
Though the film performed well at the box office and with critics when it first came out, its sparkling wit and heart-eyed optimism were slightly out of step with the prevailing comedy of the times. The Hangover had premiered two years earlier, breaking records at the box office with its lewd, crude, outrageous sense of humor, and signaling a sea change for R-rated comedies in Hollywood. Such was the magnitude of its success that the film became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in the United States, only to be surpassed by its 2011 sequel in the weeks before Crazy, Stupid, Love. hit theaters. Meanwhile, two competing casual-sex romantic comedies, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, had just opened within a few months of each other, and brazenly raunchy comedies like Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses—all released that same summer—were turning profits and earning critical praise.
As such, Crazy, Stupid, Love. might have felt more traditional to audiences than its studio originally anticipated. That said, the film achieves a certain timeless quality through its filmmaking craft; befitting the cross-generational premise, the directors approach modern romance with a vintage feel. Though plenty of modern romantic comedies opt for soft and bright color palettes (an approach that’s since become more easily recognized as the Netflix house style), Crazy, Stupid, Love often settles into a warm, nocturnal glow, especially during scenes set at its singles bar (the only spot in Los Angeles, or so the film would have you believe). Pools of light mix with rich shadows as different couples lock eyes from across the lounge, banter between drinks, and occasionally stage a dramatic entrance or exit. Especially given the ways the film has been recognized since its release—as a fashion film, a refreshingly sincere paean to the romantic-comedy genre and an effective showcase for actors in different stages of flourishing into movie stars—it doesn’t feel like an overstep to say this subtle attention to mood has contributed to the film’s staying power.
Ficarra and Requa shoot on grainy film stock and often adopt a handheld camera approach that keeps the actors close, allowing their performances and often improvised banter to flow naturally. There’s a playful intimacy to the film’s best scenes, and this feels especially essential to Jacob and Hannah’s courtship, which marked the first time audiences had witnessed Gosling and Stone’s sizzling chemistry in action, years ahead of La La Land.
Much of their dialogue was improvised during the scenes at Jacob’s house, with the filmmakers maintaining that they tossed out the script and shot the two actors lying in bed, riffing back-and-forth, for hours. And from Gosling justifying his frivolous Shopping Network purchases (“I’m wildly unhappy, I’m trying to buy it, and it’s not working”) to Stone’s simply marvelous Lauren Bacall impression (“Oh, you think coffee and sleep don’t go together? Well they do if it’s High Point. It’s de-caff-einated!”), there’s a sense of unfeigned wonder to their rapport, as if these two can’t spill their secrets quite fast enough. The banter between them flows like champagne from a bottle, bubbly and gold; it’s a rare kind of movie magic to see two performers this magnificently charming discover such an effortless, magnetic attraction in real time.
Even outside of the alchemy Gosling and Stone unlock in their scenes together, much of the film’s finest comedy still feels breezily spontaneous, carried off through the actors’ expressive features and inspired line readings. Crazy, Stupid, Love. remains one of the most quotable romantic comedies in recent years, from Cal’s incredulous defense of his New Balance sneakers (“These are my 407s!”) to Emily’s tearful confession to her soon-to-be ex-husband (“I went to go see the new Twilight movie by myself, and it was so bad, Cal”). As Kate, a teacher Cal brings home from the bar one night, Marisa Tomei nails many of the film’s most outrageous one-liners, bursting onto the scene like a wrecking ball of tart comic energy. Hannah’s best friend Liz, played by a scene-stealing Liza Lapira, gets another standout: “It’ll be good for you to get out,” she tells Hannah over the phone. “And by get out, I mean have Hot Guy from the Bar knock you into his headboard until you see God.”
But the line that most captures the romantic and comedic lightning bolts dancing around inside Crazy, Stupid, Love. comes courtesy of Cal, who’s always described Emily as “the perfect combination of sexy and cute.” In a moment of panic he later uses the same line on Kate. It works—with hilarious, somewhat horrifying immediacy—and Cal’s left to grapple with whether he’s been unfaithful to the wife who left him first, as well as to weigh the bittersweetness of moving on. But later on, Emily’s reaction to hearing those words in another context offers Cal all the proof he needs that their love still matters to her, as it does to him. A decade later, “the perfect combination of sexy and cute” captures the hope, humor and heart of Crazy, Stupid, Love. all in one. Like the best romantic comedies, it’s a sweet nothing that means just about everything.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.