SPOILERS ABOUND. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Jason and I went to see Crazy Stupid Love last week as our anniversary date, because seeing a movie about a couple on the edge of a divorce is a GREAT idea for an anniversary date. (It was my choice; I’m not blaming him.) But actually it was good because the movie turned me into a laughing, sobbing, gooey, slightly turned-on (I’m sorry to be so predictable but Ryan Gosling doing the Dirty Dancing lift is hot, okay?) mess and I was clinging to his arm the whole time. Plus we saw it here, and yeah, we shelled out for the Premium PLUS tickets. This was sort of like being a small child, or a very wealthy recluse. We reclined on cushy chairs with cozy blankies, and sodas, popcorn, and fried foods magically appeared at our table. It was pretty awesome.
Initially, I loved this movie. Like I said, I was either laughing or crying practically the whole time, and usually I don’t like crying at movies, because it feels imposed on me, but a) they cut it with lots of laughing so that’s okay, and b) the actors earned the tears the got. So I really liked it. And look, the actors are great. Julianne Moore is obviously a goddess, and if you haven’t been convinced of that fact by her myriad* film roles, go watch her spar with Alec Baldwin in the guest arc she did on 30 Rock. Go. Now. I’ll wait.
*That trailer is irritating me. Oscar Wilde’s England wasn’t Jane Austen’s England. Jane Austen’s novels were published from 1811 – 1818 (and two of those were published posthumously). Oscar Wilde was born in 1854. I know they both lived “in the past” but “in the past” continues not to be a monolith, and the 19th century was a century of major upheavals for England that were probably only second to the upheavals of the 20th. And, um, the 11th. And the 5th.
Isn’t she awesome? And Emma Stone? I love Emma Stone! I love her adorable charm. I love her whole schtick. A lot. Ryan Gosling? First of all, drool. (He takes off his shirt at some point in the movie. My husband got into the car after and was like, “I’m going to start working out.”) Second of all, he’s hilarious. I don’t think I knew he was hilarious before this. He gets the line of the night with, “The war of the sexes is over and men won. We won when pole-dancing became an exercise class.” And Steve Carell? He can make me cry with the lift of an eyebrow. He can make me laugh with the quirk of a lip. I think he is so completely invested an actor and I love him. I just love him.
And there were some really, really solid scenes. At one point, Steve Carell is in the backyard of the house he used to share with his family, tending to the lawn under cover of night, when his wife calls him. She pretends she needs his help with the furnace (I think it’s the furnace. The furnace is where you’d find a pilot light, right? She asks about a pilot light.) but he can see her through the window; he knows she’s not actually trying to fix the furnace; she’s just standing there wanting to hear his voice. But he plays along like he’s actually helping her with the furnace, with his heart in his throat the whole time. You guys, I lost it. I mean, I really lost it. That stuff gets me.
And the series of scenes in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling fall in love are so funny and so sexy and so sweet and, in my opinion, so well-written.
But all of these great scenes can’t save it from itself, in the end. Because (in case you didn’t get this from the he’s-watching-his-ex-wife-through-her-window thing) it’s yet another movie that promotes the idea that stalking = true love and if she tells you to bug off, it just means you haven’t made a Grand enough Romantic Gesture yet.
See, Julianne Moore and Steve Carell have a thirteen-year-old son* who is in love with his eighteen-year-old babysitter, who is herself the daughter of family friends. He – more than once – tells her he thinks about her when he masturbates, he texts and calls even when she tells him that he’s making her uncomfortable, and he (more than once) very publicly declares his love for her even though she asks him to stop embarrassing her. She tells him she loves someone else, and he doesn’t care. Until he finds out that that someone else is his dad. Then he flips a shit.
*They also have a maybe ten-year-old daughter but she barely has lines, never mind any emotions about, say, her parents’ impending divorce which may be inconvenient to her parents or the plot.
He finds this out because her parents discover the naked pictures she took of herself with the intention to give them to Steve Carell, so her father drives to the family’s house (and oddly, not Steve Carell’s new divorced-dad digs, even though it’s just a coincidence that Steve Carell is at his family’s house at that moment) to punch him out. It would have taken a two-sentence conversation with his daughter to determine that Steve Carell had done nothing to encourage this behavior from her, but, you know. Then no whacky hijinx could ensue. So the son decides that she’s a worthless whore and his dad’s an evil bastard. Ignoring the facts that a) his dad didn’t even know that the babysitter had a crush on him until that moment, and isn’t responsible for her feelings in the first place, and b) she’s not his girlfriend and can take ill-advised pictures of herself for anyone she wants. And look, I understand that the kid is thirteen. But the writers of the movie are not. And they kind of imply – or don’t do anything to avoid implying – that they think the kid is in the right here.
Then the kid makes his grand Love Stinks speech at his graduation (because why not, really?) and Steve Carell interrupts him, I guess because making inappropriate speeches in public settings has become, post-The Office, Steve Carell’s thing, and the conclusion reached by all is that a) you do have a soulmate, b) you probably met her in grade school (the ‘you’ is of course male; we’ll get to that later), and c) you should probably declare – publicly – your intention to “fight for her” forever and ever no matter what she does or says to dissuade you. Because stalking is romantic. We know that the ladies find the stalking ultimately romantic because the babysitter responds to his second public declaration of love for her, and his prediction that when he’s older, he’ll look like his dad (ew!), and she’ll love him then, by giving her former charge (ew!) the nude pictures she’d taken of herself that had been originally intended for his father (ew!). It must be twoo wuv.
And at the end of the movie Julianne Moore and Steve Carell seem on the mend, too. Because when your estranged husband takes the opportunity presented to him by his son’s salutatorian address going severely off the rails to announce to the entire town that he has no intention of ever moving on or respecting your wishes to do so, that’s love, you guys.
So I find myself, yet again, having to rail against all of the evil ideas about relationships and women Hollywood delivers.
And look, not to go off on a tangent (ha!), but, yes, this matters! We are humans; we are culture-making animals. Spiders make webs and live in them; we tell stories to each other and live in the culture those stories create. You think you can distinguish between reality and stories, but you can’t, and it’s not because you’re stupid, it’s because they’re not different things. Stories make order of reality; in turn, they create the terms by which we understand reality. Stories are seriously important and that’s why I will always, always take a poke at the stories that are creating a culture in which I do not want to live.
I don’t want to live in a culture in which stalking = romance. In the first place, it’s a dangerous method to keep perpetrating. Boys grow up on stories like this (I know, I know, this movie doesn’t have any explosions in it, so obviously boys don’t watch it. But we all know that’s a lie.) and then think the best way to show their love for a girl is to pester her all the damn time until he finally “wins” his “fight” for her. And after the fifth or sixth girl responds to this kind of attention with bitchy putdowns or restraining orders, he becomes enraged and bitter and misogynist. Girls grow up on stories like this, and don’t feel fully loved until someone is standing under their window with a boom box. Even though they don’t know what a boom box is. Furthermore, when they feel threatened by a boy’s attention, they feel guilty about having that feeling, so instead of listening to that voice going, “This behavior is inappropriate and scary,” they make allowances. Because they’ve seen the movies; this is how “nice” guys behave.
Furthermore, the idea of Grand Romantic Gestures and “fighting” for the one you love really allows a movie like this to glide over what it actually takes to keep a relationship together. Because relationships are hard. Building a life together is hard work and requires more in terms of personal strength and skill than you’d ever think it would. And you can fuck it up. You can fuck it up so that it’s beyond repair. You can fuck it up so that it’s not beyond repair, but you still have to repair it. Declaring your love for her and your memory of sharing mint chocolate chip ice cream with her on your first date in front of the entire town is not the same thing as repairing the relationship. At best, it’s an indication that you want to do the actual work. At worst, it’s just a gesture you hope will mean you won’t have to. And when the stories we tell ourselves tell us just the opposite of that, it makes the work so much harder, because both partners feel, in the backs of their minds, that this kind of work has no place in the world of True Love.
I also don’t want to live in a culture in which women are mere conduits to men’s self-actualization. Because despite hiring women like Julianne Moore and Emma Stone, and despite this being a movie about love and relationships, which are usually considered “chick flicks,” this movie is entirely about who men are and what men want. I will admit that, while in thrall to this movie, I was solidly on Steve Carell’s side in the divorce. Partially this was because she cheated, and I have low sympathy for that. I have even lower sympathy in this case because, like my husband and I, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore have only ever been with each other. I know that all cheating is bad, but I feel that, when you’re each other’s firsts and onlys and intend to be onlys forever, there’s a bubble created in which all sex is sex with each other and so the very definition of sexual experience is each other. And she busted that. So to hell with her. When, later in the movie, we’re supposed to kind of be on her side for ten seconds (just long enough so that Steve Carell can grow) because a) Steve Carell slept with nine other people, and b) one of them was his son’s English teacher, I was going, “Hey, you broke the bubble first.”
(The English teacher is played by Marisa Tomei, who did crazy/horny/crazy pretty well, as usual, but it was more misogyny, because of course the girl you wronged is batshit crazy! That’s why it was okay to wrong her!)
But the truth is, the movie made it so that I can only be on Steve Carell’s side, because I don’t know what Julianne Moore’s side is. She never has a scene where we can see why she wanted a divorce. The movie opens with couples’ feet under tables in a restaurant; they’re all playing footsie. Then we see Steve Carell’s feet, in New Balance sneakers (who must have been paid for all the negative endorsement this movie gives them, unless the idea that no publicity is bad publicity holds) not playing footsie with Julianne’ Moore’s well-shod feet. And I don’t know what that’s about, really. It might symbolize that Julianne Moore is still working on the relationship and Steve Carell is not, or that she’s grown and he hasn’t, or that women’s sartorial standards are always higher than males. Or it’s not a symbol, but a symptom of that last one. I don’t know. In any event, that non-footsie playing is the only glimpse we get of their relationship before Julianne Moore announces she wants a divorce. And Steve Carell is gobsmacked. And then they’re in the car, and she’s continuing to talk about how she wants a divorce and how she slept with this guy at work but it’s really about their problems and Steve Carell continues to be gobsmacked. And of course, Steve Carell is the King of Gobsmacked. He was great in this scene. But the scene was all about him. Julianne Moore was just the Girl-Person making noise in his ear so he could react to it. Even when she tells him she had sex with someone else, but that it was a symptom of their marital problems, we never get into what her perspective on those marital problems is. (We never even find out much about the man she had an affair with. He’s around, but he’s never a real character or even a real threat to the relationship, since it’s pretty clear that Julianne Moore has no intention of pursuing a relationship with him. And he’s played by Kevin Bacon. Why did they pay Kevin Bacon prices for such a non-entity? Why did Kevin Bacon say yes? Do we not pay him royalties every time we play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?) Ryan Gosling suggests that it’s that Steve Carell lost perspective on who he was as a man and that’s the plot line the movie follows for a while, the line of Ryan Gosling showing Steve Carell how to be a “man” (read: PUA asshole), but Ryan Gosling has never met Julianne Moore and it later becomes clear that he’s projecting his daddy issues onto Steve Carell. Steve Carell suggests to Julianne Moore that he was taking the relationship for granted, but that’s kind of meaningless and generic. So the way the movie plays out, Julianne Moore announcing that she wants to divorce Steve Carell is nothing more than Julianne Moore pushing Steve Carell off on his journey of self-discovery, and then serving as his North Star so he can keep track of where he wants to go. What she wanted, what she was missing, none of this is ever the point, none of it is ever really discussed. And this is the height of romance, for a woman. Being some schlub’s North Star.
Even the adorable Emma Stone loses all personality and perspective once she teaches Ryan Gosling to be a “man” (read: not a PUA asshole). Before that she’s sparkly and witty and has a career path; after that we never see those traits again. We barely see her again, and when we do, it’s mainly her standing by Ryan Gosling’s side, not doing much. And the babysitter can, of course, transfer her feelings of affection (and nude pics) from the father to the son, not because we’re ever shown her developing an appreciation for the son’s character but because the son has self-actualized, man! And has asked her to spend her college years and a large chunk of her twenties waiting for him. Romance!
Even worse is the way I’m supposed to believe that men who see women as conduits to their self-actualization are the “nice” guys, juxtaposed to their “asshole” brethren who see women as conduits to their sexual pleasure. That’s the Ryan Gosling self-actualization story – from PUA asshole to sensitive, partnered dude. That’s the belly of the whale Steve Carell has to crawl through – from New Balance sneakers to playah to sensitive, partnered dude. I am not any more sold on this theory than when they were trying to sell it to me on Dawson’s Creek. Not in the least because hey, if you’re only a conduit to sexual pleasure, you can spend the rest of your time doing other things. If you’ve got to be a conduit to their self-actualization, that’s pretty much a full-time, lifelong job. (Oh, excuse me, I forgot. All women really want is the full-time, lifelong job of taking care of a man’s fragile ego.) But no, seriously, this is the thing we should build a culture around instead: You are nice if you see others as whole, separate people, with existences, motivations, desires and rights that are equal to your own. You are not nice if you see other people mostly as conduits for your own desires, no matter what those desires are. You’re using someone just as surely if you use them for cuddling as if you use them for sex. Nah mean?
I didn’t come out of this movie wanting to hate it. I came out of this movie loving it. Because I live in this culture, too, and I’m just as capable as anyone else of ignoring the messages I don’t like in favor of a story I enjoyed being told. Some individual scenes were wonderfully written, poignant and funny and awesome. And I love each of these actors. A lot. Emma Stone, I don’t mean to creep you out after the whole Jim Carrey thing, but I think you and I could be friends. Call me.
But I can’t ignore these things forever. Stories are important; stories matter. I want better ones.