Those who know Glenn Ficarra and John Requa as the writers of 2003's Bad Santa may be surprised to find the duo harbor a collective sentimental streak, which does battle with their penchant for off-color humor in the ain't-it-grand ensemble Crazy, Stupid, Love.
As mom and dad Steve Carell and Julianne Moore head toward divorce, their son (Jonah Bobo) nurses a fierce crush on his baby sitter (Analeigh Tipton), who is herself hot for Carell. Newly single Carell takes tips from seasoned pickup artist Ryan Gosling, who takes pity on the hapless older man but falls prey to Cupid's wiles once the uncommonly resistant Emma Stone comes into the picture. Got all that?
Intertwining love plots go back at least as far as Restoration comedy, and the dash of worldly cynicism Ficarra and Requa throw into the mix has roots in Max Ophüls' La Ronde, among less reputable forebears. (For a closer fit, try Parenthood.) But the script, by Pixar and Disney veteran Dan Fogelman, peddles shopworn adages instead of hard-earned truths. Each story feels like something that happened to a friend of a friend, just far enough removed to feel naggingly out of whack.
Every now and then, a moment rings through clearly — less so from Carell and Moore, both playing beneath their station, than Stone, who adeptly balances a grown woman's self-possession with the lingering indefiniteness of adolescence. (Her mixture of disbelief and desire when she first views Gosling's ice-cube abs is a reaction shot for the ages.) Poor Tipton is stuck playing only the latter, all doe eyes and nervous tics, a bundle of neuroses bound up in a sideways ponytail. There's strong, fleetingly powerful stuff in Crazy, Stupid, Love., but like its awkwardly punctuated title, the movie jerks to a halt just when it's beginning to flow.