In the olden days comedies were great. Remember the screwball comedies from the late thirties like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday? The witty dialogues, the fast speed, … The Preston Sturges movies were great too: long before Aki Kaurismäki there already was a director whose comedies made you cry rather than laugh. Sadly those days seemed to be over. Comedy had turned into something else. One of the most-loved comedies of the nineties featured a girl who mistook sperm for styling gel. The film was There’s something about Mary and people seemed to love it for some reason. The other highlight was a man who got his penis stuck in the zipper of his trousers. How superior was that movie to the days of building up a movie around a couple of mistakes whilst the characters fired oneliners and double entendres at each other… The twenty-first century seemed to wallow in comedy dirt: the offspring of Bringing Up Baby seemed to have been conquered by the worshippers of Animal House. I seem to be alone in this, but I was heavily disappointed by The Hangover – maybe because I’d expected more from Ed Helms, one of the few Daily Show alumni who were able to combine high-brow and low-brow jokes.
Steve Carell was the first Daily Show “correspondent” who left the successful ship for a career in movies (and The Office). The 40 Year Old Virgin was his claim to fame so far. I said so far… 2011 gave us a comedy called Crazy, Stupid, Love. (CSL, from now on). From the first scene onwards, the movie shows it knows how to build up a joke. We sit in a restaurant and observe people’s shoes making out underneath the table, all the way to the worn-out sneakers of Steve Carell and the uninterested shoes of Julianne Moore. No further introduction needed, here’s a loveless marriage. The meal is almost over and Steve Carell’s character Cal Weaver decides that he and his wife should both say simultaneously what they desire: he wants a crème brulée, she opts for a divorce.
Intercut with the scenes of the couple splitting up, we’re also introduced to their son who’s caught with his hands under his sheets by the babysitter (“For what it’s worth, I think of you when I do it.”) and to some slick guy in the bar who seems to be successful with the ladies. Jacob Palmer is played by Ryan Gosling (does he live in studios these days?) and the previous sentence wasn’t completely true: his smooth tactics don’t work on law student Hannah (Emma Stone), mainly because she’s inches away from a degree in law and because her boyfriend is so happy with her he’s preparing her from that “very special” day.
While Jacob overcomes this cold shower by going to the very next single lady in the bar, he can’t help but spot Cal who’s telling everyone his ex-wife was having an affair with an office colleague (Kevin Bacon). Gosling feels sympathetic towards the lonely man and offers him a makeover, which will change the lives of everyone involved.
You see? That’s the setting for an ambitious comedy and make no mistake, CSL is just that. The film even goes for a climax like the ones from the screwball era: so much happens at the same time and it would be a shame to ruin any of the many plot threads.
Apart from this… the movie isn’t over after the climax. Which I must admit felt odd. After lingering on for a couple of minutes, the film prepares itself for a second climax (still odd) and, even worse, it seems like we’ll end the film on one of those Hollywood moral lessons. Oh boy… and while this may be the case to a large extent, the film manages not to end on a completely happy end and even has one or two snaps ready that you wouldn’t see in a traditional comedy with high morals (i.e. the envelope).
Naysayers will complain that the good old days will never return and that anything from the olden days is infinitely better than anything made today. Put those people in quarantine and enjoy this film: it’s witty, it manages to have two climaxes which work and there’s lots of oneliners. Add to that talent like Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon and you have a modern day comedy that manages to look decent next to old screwballs. Sure, there is the occasional faux pas: the scene at the parental night at school looks very much staged – it’s quite odd to think there’s only two chairs for the next parents and that they’re both put on opposite sides of the classroom, but it looks good on screen.
One of the better movies of the year is a comedy. We must be ill.