Friday, August 19, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love

The trouble with Crazy, Stupid, Love. (aside from its title’s eccentric punctuation) is that there is so much of it. Though the romantic comedy, starring Steve Carell as a recently separated man, clocks in at a hair under two hours, watching it feels like a particularly long, meandering and aimless trip.

You can’t really fault the casting, which assembles stellar performers like Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, except to raise the obligatory objection to the leading-man status of Steve Carell, who doesn’t have the charisma casting directors seem to think he does, and whose character in this movie is not very sympathetic, though the audience is asked to sympathize with him nonetheless. Nor are the production values at fault, except for a particularly insistent pop soundtrack. The main culprit, as with most of today’s movies, is the script, which includes far too many stories, with jarring shifts of tone and lapses of coherence and taste. There are enough story threads in the movie to make up an entire season of a TV series, and the screenwriter ties them together in the clumsiest way imaginable.

The central story is about the breakup of the 25-year marriage of high school sweethearts Cal and Emily (Carell and Moore) when Emily announces she has slept with a co-worker and wants a divorce. Cal’s response is stony silence, followed by a sudden leap from the couple’s moving Volvo. Cal moves out of the family home, leaving behind his heartbroken children and moving into a bachelor pad. He spends his nights drinking at a cocktail lounge that seems to have been imported from an earlier, pre-AIDS decade, when singles’ bars were commonplace. Cal sits at the bar sipping his vodka and cranberry juice and loudly lamenting his wife’s unfaithfulness.

His pathetic display catches the attention of Jacob (Gosling), a slick young roué similarly imported from another era, who decides (à la Hitch or The Pickup Artist and probably a few movies I’ve never heard of) to take Cal under his tutelage and show him the manly art of seducing women. He throws Cal’s New Balance sneakers over a railing (“Are you in a fraternity?”), outfits him in a slick new wardrobe, and allows Cal to watch and learn as he seduces a different comely lady every night, using lines and techniques that would get him laughed out of a real singles’ bar.

Cal proves a willing pupil, eventually stumbling his way into a night of passion with a sexy teacher (Marisa Tomei), which opens the floodgates to his new avocation of womanizing (one wonders when he has time for his job). At the same time, Cal wants desperately to get back together with Emily, whose one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon, who plays the co-worker she cheated with, is proving to be less interesting than she thought. (Furthermore, Bacon is too much a movie star to convince as a nerdy accountant; maybe he should have swapped parts with Carell.)

When the movie promises to be about the education and re-education of a “pickup artist,” it is fairly witty and entertaining. But the movie wants to be too many things – a bittersweet divorce drama, a young adults’ love story (when Jacob falls in love with a young woman played by Emma Stone), an adolescents’ love story (when Cal’s son pursues an obsessive crush on the family babysitter, who in turn has an unhealthy crush on Cal).

A separate storyline involving recent law school graduate Hannah (Stone) and her romantic travails seems completely irrelevant, until the last act, where it’s tied in by way of an unconvincing coincidence, one of several in the movie.

It is as if, rather than two directors, the movie had two writers (if both housed in the person of Fogelman). Alongside many scenes of wit, taste and sensitivity (the jokey, affectionate conversations between Cal and Emily, the friendly intimacy between Hannah and Jacob), there are questionable lapses, such as young Robbie’s middle-school grade graduation speech — a rambling and irrelevant lament about how love stinks — and an inappropriate “graduation gift” he receives from babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) that the movie presents as cute, but that would in real life get her arrested for corrupting a minor.

The Help

The movie version of Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, avoids one of the book’s main problems: Stockett’s inartful use of dialect in depicting the first-person narratives of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. To some readers’ dismay, the book is rife with “Law have mercys” and “Don’t you go sassing this white lady like you done the other.” Unless you are William Faulkner or Truman Capote or Flannery O’Connor, Southern black dialect is probably a thing you should avoid.

The movie, however, adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, places the dialogue in the mouths of some fine actresses, and the effect is much more natural than Stockett’s clunky prose on the page. The film gets more directly to the heart of the story, which is about the uncomfortable and often dangerous pre-civil rights relations between the races, focusing especially on the black women who cook, clean and raise the children of white women who treat them like chattel -- and sometimes like disease-carrying aliens.

Some of the maids have raised generations of children, whose children grow up to be just like them – heirs to a corrupt system of white privilege and de facto slavery. Stockett, a native of Jackson, based the book on her own childhood experiences of being largely raised by a kindly and supportive black maid.

In the story, Stockett’s stand-in is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone, an inspired casting choice but not the least Southern), a recent college graduate with ambitions to be a novelist. She lands a job at a daily newspaper answering housekeeping questions, a subject that leads her to consult with the various maids employed by her “society” friends.

Skeeter has a special affinity for “the help”; her childhood confidante and comforter was her family’s maid, Constantine (the redoubtable Cicely Tyson), who left the family’s employ while Skeeter was away at school. Skeeter’s childhood chum Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the meanest white lady in town, tries to enlist Skeeter in a repulsive campaign to pass a law requiring maids to use outhouses rather than sully the bathrooms of their white employers. Skeeter will have none of it.

Skeeter interests a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) in a book written from the perspective of black maids, and enlists the reluctant Aibileen (Viola Davis), the feisty Minny (Octavia Spencer) and a dozen other maids to tell their stories of their lives and their work in the service of white people, a truth-telling endeavor that is dangerous in early-‘60s Mississippi – the state condemned for its racist cruelty in songs by Phil Ochs and Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”). The film effectively surrounds the personal stories with socio-historical context; we see police harassment of black people, maids accused of stealing, and a group of black household servants solemnly watching the news of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, prompting Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney) to angrily turn off the television (“Don’t encourage them!”). Skeeter’s research acquaints her with some of the more absurd segregationist legislation on the books; Minny teaches her daughter, who was forced to quit school and work as a maid, to set the coffee down when serving it to the white people, because “your hands can never touch.”

The movie’s emotional center is Hackett’s sympathy for the unique relationships between black women and the white children they raise, a circumstance still prevalent today. One of Skeeter’s first questions of Aibileen is, “How does it feel to raise white people’s children while your own children are being looked after by someone else?” (Studs Terkel’s books offer African American women’s real-life narratives about this experience.) The movie is at its best when dramatizing these emotional bonds: Abileen teaching her charge, a chubby, neglected toddler she calls Baby Girl, the empowering mantra: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” and the little girl crying piteously when Aibileen – her “real” mama -- is banished from the house. Equally agonizing is Skeeter’s discovery of the reason Constantine left her mother’s employ, an act of thoughtless bigotry that can never be rectified.

While it attains great emotional heights, Stockett’s storytelling also plumbs the depths of taste. As the aforementioned toilet story suggests, the author has an unfortunate predilection for bathroom themes, not all of which make it into the movie. Here, from the book, is one maid’s perspective on “Gone With the Wind”: “If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.” It’s emblematic of the author’s style that the movie’s climax (spoiler alert) involves an act of revenge using a pie baked with human feces, a plot device that is more psychotic than humorous, and does nothing to enhance the dignity of the characters.

The movie bears the hallmark of its Disney origins, with a slick faux period style reminiscent of a TV miniseries. In attempting to squeeze an entire novel into a film – even at the numbing length of 137 minutes – some plot elements and characters (like Hilly’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek) are merely sketched in. Others are caricatures, like Hilly, who can’t be just a racist but must also be an absolute monster, a tendency to exaggerate that afflicts many movies about race made by white people (see also The Color Purple and Precious). While the movie has a superb cast and contains many deeply moving scenes, these qualities are undermined by cartoonishness and Stockett’s inexplicable latrine fixation.