Within the first five or six minutes of meeting Cal (Steve Carell), we witness him suffer through a terrible dinner with his wife in which she blurts out she has slept with someone else and wants a divorce, fall out of the passenger side of their car onto the suburban road to avoid having to hear her describe her feelings about their break up, and, in perhaps the quickest conjugal dissolution in cinematic history, watch him back a large U-Haul truck out of their driveway, off to the kind of miserable bachelor apartment building that Millhouse’s dad might find appealing.
As portrayed by Carell, Cal is nebbish and ineffectual, kind-hearted but removed from his Id to the point where he intentionally wears white New Balances with his frumpy, too-large suit coats, and sips vodka cranberries with a straw. These facts are not lost on Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a slick, handsome ladies man, who sees Cal sitting miserably by himself up at the bar shortly after he’s moved out of his house, and, seemingly, takes pity on him. He decides to teach him the ropes of being a ladykiller — beginning with a new wardrobe and haircut — in exchange for something ineffable of which we’re never quite sure. Meanwhile, Cal’s wife, Emily (Julianne Moore) is trying to make it on her own at the house with the kids, including 13-year-old Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who has an undying love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who, in turn, has a powerful crush on Cal, for being such a good dad. To further muck up the works, Jacob, who spends most of the first third of the film bedding down every woman with whom he comes in contact, meets the brainy, honest Hannah (Emma Stone) and might actually have found in her someone to genuinely love.
Despite the film’s somewhat ham-handed set up, it works surprisingly well, mainly on the strength of a solid cast and Dan Fogelman’s witty, well-executed script, which revels in turning Hollywood clichés just slightly enough on their head to keep them fresh while throwing in a succession of skillfully handled narrative misdirections to keep you on your toes.
At first glance, many of the characters we meet are little more than archetypes, none more-so than the dowdy, pathetically passive Cal with his Velcro wallet and rumpled Gap jeans, but the film is largely toying with your expectations. Quite obviously, Cal and Jacob will end up switching roles, with Cal becoming something of a womanizer and Jacob finding more to love than his own (impressive) pecs, a clichéd Hollywood set-up if ever there were one.
All this is true, yet the ways in which the film takes each character a step or two further past their initial impressions leads to a welcome and amusing reassessment by the end, especially in the film’s piece de resistance, an outlandish scene that brings each and every plot element into play at once in a marvelous bit of French-like farce. By the end, the characters have grown so much past their original stations that even Robbie’s laughable quest for acknowledgement of his love doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Perhaps, the rom-com isn’t quite as dead in the water as the many, many cynical and shoddy attempts Hollywood has churned out the past few years would have us believe.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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