In the sharply tuned rom-dram-com Crazy, Stupid, Love (currently on Blu-ray and DVD) our sad sap of a hero Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) remarks – while lamenting the disintegration of his marriage after his wife (Julianne Moore) reveals she’s been cheating – that no one ever seems to use the word “cuckold” any more. But that’s what he is. A cuckold.
In Alexander Payne’s shockingly bleak and depressing dram-dram-com The Descendants (currently in theaters) Matt King (George Clooney) is a cuckold, too, only his cheating wife is left in a coma after a freak accident.
Both films feature nice, good-hearted, middle-aged guys desperately trying to hold their families together and feature kids in uncomfortable situations…but Crazy, Stupid, Love mines for laughs while The Descendants mines for gold (Oscar gold). They also both feature a bevy of “Only in Hollywood” scenarios that couldn’t be farther from how real people deal with problems. Only in a Hollywood movie like The Descendants (parading as an independent film) would our hero be a Hawaiian land baron, who also happens to give some of the worst expository voice-over narration in recent memory. Only in a Hollywood movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love (which in so many odd yet endearing ways comes across as American Beauty re-imagined as a sitcom) would our hero meet a guy at a bar (played by Ryan Gosling) who teaches him how to pick-up women, among which is a wild teacher played with hilarious aplomb by Marisa Tomei. Oh yeah, Emma Stone is in Crazy, Stupid Love, too, as a sassy but kind lawyer-to-be – and she’s smokin’-hot and a riot. Both films have some talented kid actors, and The Descendants has some guy giving Keanu Reeves a run for his money (quick – sign Nick Krause to that Bill & Ted remake). This moron provides the Payne film with its only laughs.
And the Payne film is a pain to sit through. Alexander Payne is delivering his first film since Sideways (one of my favorite dram-dram-coms of all-time) – but The Descendants descends in awkward lurches full of elitist literary clichés (please – the guy’s wife is dying and he’s in the midst of the most important land deal decision of his life involving his family’s ancestral Hawaiian lands?) that make it abundantly clear this was adapted from what I can only hope was a more fleshed-out (though probably equally as unrealistic) novel. It’s easy to see why critics have swooned over this one (Clooney does deliver a masterfully textured performance playing a man seething with anger but quietly holding it together on the surface) as we all want Payne to feel encouraged to make more films more often – but please, man, don’t make them as depressing and out of tune as this. In fact, in hindsight, Jason Reitman (the king of dram-dram-coms like Juno and Up in the Air) was doing a pretty damn good job filling Payne’s shoes during Payne’s long absence. Essentially The Descendants’ big lesson is that living in paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and misery thrives on beautiful tropical islands. Gee, thanks for the big insight! People can have problems anywhere – duh! Well, I guess life anywhere isn’t easy for a cuckold – even one who is land baron. And to top it off – there were too many manipulative scenes of “saying goodbye” that were the complete opposite of cathartic. I left the theater feeling turned upside down (I would’ve killed for sideways!) for no good reason.
Which is why Crazy, Stupid, Love – a throwaway pick from my Netflix queue I vaguely recall getting good notices when it came and went from theaters over the summer – came blowing in like a breath of fresh air behind The Descendants. I was surprised at how well it played with many of the same themes but in a more pleasing (albeit manufactured) way. Sure, it was a bit disjointed at first and slow to build its amiability, but I liked how they brought the two disparate story-lines of Carrell and Emma Stone together – and I like how they weren’t afraid to play up the ridiculousness of the climax for laughs. It felt good to laugh after that awful vacation in Hawaii. And for the first time in many films, I didn’t hate Steve Carell. He’s good at this dramedy stuff (remember Dan in Real Life?) and he makes the perfect cuckold.
Every instinct of my critical soul (married to art – not Hollywood!) tells me The Descendants is the better film than Crazy, Stupid Love. My heart tells me it’s simply not. But just as both movies prove, it’s okay to cheat sometimes.
Written by David H. Schleicher