Critics don’t usually use “formulaic” as a descriptor. More often, it’s intended as a buzzword meant to signify … well, “bad.”
But there are times with formula makes for a satisfying, smooth night at the movies. Think of formula as shorthand, wherein the comfort of the basic plotline allows the movie’s filigrees to stand out like the unique flavors of a well-prepared dish.
I say that as someone who was not hungry in the slightest for Crazy, Stupid, Love. As much as the cast intrigued me, and as interested as I was to see directorial team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s follow-up to I Love You, Philip Morris, my interest was quashed by having seen the trailer one (or a dozen) too many times this summer. (Seriously, if I never hear Emma Stone say the word “Photoshopped” ever again, it’ll be too soon.)
Call me crazy, or call me stupid, but I emerged in love with Love. And like someone in love, I am in a mood to overlook some of the movie’s glaring flaws (i.e. its overreliance on sitcom micro-twists, its rather bold product placements, and other various offenses that, frankly, come with the territory of mass-market filmmaking).
Steve Carrell stars as Cal, a family man whose wife Emily (Julianne Moore) remedies a case of midlife crisis with an extramarital affair. Cal gives her up without a fight and sulks away to what appears to be the most expensive cocktail lounge in their particular stretch of suburban turf, drinking watery vodka cranberries and vocally bemoaning his position.
Enter Ryan Gosling as Jacob, a massive metrosexual crusader who vows to turn Cal’s situation around. Four credit limits later, and Cal is about as suave as he’ll ever get. Meanwhile, Jacob is perturbed to find himself falling in love with the one woman who never stayed the night in his Brookstone lair, Hannah (Stone).
Love spends two hours rectifying both situations to the most popularly acceptable outcome, and despite the predictability, the conviction of the four main players and the level of belief Ficarra and Requa invest into the script’s clichés don’t just validate the whole enterprise. They turn it into one of this year’s most sheerly pleasurable movies I could never recommend to most of my jaded friends.
Contrast Love with something like (oh, digging far back) Friends with Benefits, which falls for the same clichés but dishonestly pays lip-service to being better than them. Held against Timberlake’s “ironic” Third Eye Blind crooning, Carell’s running-on-empty empathy and Gosling’s unsurprising romantic longing exude total realness.
Of course, there are times when formula fizzles.
No, forget fizzles. Sometimes formula filmmaking flat out tanks.
That’s what happens when the powers that be pitted cowboys against aliens and saw the ampersand between them they figured would put dollar signs in their eyes. (Yes, I know it was based on a comic book series. That’s no excuse. Did they learn nothing from Will Smith’s monstrously era-vague Wild Wild West update?)
Very few guy movie ingredients were left out of the soggy soufflé that is Cowboys & Aliens. Westerns, gunplay, father/son surrogates, ‘Merica, scary green aliens, nubile female humanoid aliens, men learning how to shoot straight, boys learning how to knife their enemies, James Bond, Indiana Jones entering the True Grit stage of his career, etc. ad nauseum.
Nothing was left to chance. But stack enough dead weight on top of a single marble and see just how fast it comes crashing down.
No really, do it. It’ll be less headache-inducing and likely easier to clean up than the mess leftover by Cowboys & Aliens.