LET US BEGIN by acknowledging the obvious, that the 2011 movie Crazy, Stupid, Love is light and pleasant, adult fare but hardly a work of depth or of high seriousness. Its architecture is thoroughly of a Shakespearean cast, in which a main plot is complemented by and interweaved with two sub-plots. A moment arrives when the characters and their dramatic trajectories, hitherto discrete, collide one with another to calamitous effect. Things fall to pieces, and from this seeming state of irreparable chaos order is reinstated. This narrative arc, from social order to disorder and back to order once again, with no lasting harm done, is the essence of Comedy.
I won’t trouble you with a plot summary of Crazy, Stupid, Love, this being readily available elsewhere. In any case I assume for the purposes of this essay that you’ve seen the movie, which features Steve Carell as Cal Weaver and Julianne Moore as his wife of twenty-five years, Emily. Ryan Gosling ably performs the role of a Don Juan figure, Jacob Palmer. The plot rehearses a well-worn trope familiar to Renaissance audiences, or ancient Greek ones for that matter: romantic love is irrational and absurd but above all ineluctable. Along the way there are surface expressions of misery and at further extreme of corrosive cynicism, but the chief function of the narrative arc is to reinforce the essentially bourgeois notion that lifelong monogamous marriage to one’s “soul mate” is not only possible but indeed a preferable and even normal arrangement.
As the movie delivers us into the territory of comedy, none of this is to be regarded as anything but a function of genre. Of course Love triumphs, and of course the gestures and pursuits of Romance, though “crazy and stupid,” turn out to be one’s best bet. Such is the romantic comedy. It would be silly to consume Crazy, Stupid, Love in the way one absorbs a news report from Bosnia or a Google Map or a recipe for turnip soup, though lord knows there is a large and credulous following for the romantic propositions indulged in this fictive production. What interests me chiefly in this film is the representation of persons of a certain age, which is to say those between roughly 40 and 50, the “middle-aged.” This depiction establishes the grounds upon which the movie departs somewhat from the Shakespearean formula, and where it best represents many other contemporary films by reproducing what I shall term the Comedy of Middle Aged Failure.
The genre of Middle Aged Failure is a contemporary innovation for the simple reason that people now live longer and under a kinder dispensation than they did in the days before penicillin and joint replacements and so forth. As a result of these material innovations, middle-class forty-something year-olds face the existential dilemmas concurrent with their material privileges. Not very long ago at all, divorce was unthinkable. One simply expected to bear a dozen or-so children and to be put subsequently out to pasture, and bucked up accordingly. But then came birth control and disease management and in general the whole business of medical and social advancement, and with these the idea that one could live to be one hundred years old without yielding to the ancient inevitability of personal, biological obsolescence.
As best as I’ve been able to observe the thing, when one today encounters the sentence “I’m forty- — !” in a movie, it is invariably inserted into the dialogue to register a sharp sensation of personal failure and disappointment. No one mentions their forty-somethingness to any other effect. To be explicitly fortyish in a movie is to be in a crisis. But what precisely is the character of Emily Weaver’s dramatic impasse? That is the revealing bit of this film, the piece that is curious and interesting because it is simply taken for granted, as if it required no further explanation.
Well, it happens that I know the answer to this riddle. Reflecting upon my experience, I can say that it was in my mid-forties that I first undertook the business of the personal inventory. While I both hope and expect to circumnavigate the mid-life crisis, I know that these days one’s fourth decade is bound up with certain disorienting thoughts, principal among them the awareness that quite likely there are fewer good days ahead of oneself than there are behind. That in itself is unremarkable. More bothersome is the messy and unpleasant matter of accommodating into one mental box the almost-irreconcilable What I Hoped Would Be and the What Is Most Likely To Be. As a friend of mine once put it, many years ago and in another context, this business is rather a matter of “smelling one’s own smell.” There is no quick nor simple way round it, nor would I suppose there should be. In this mid-life accounting exercise, awareness of one’s insecurities and personal limitations and failures and human imperfections no longer may draw upon the compensatory illusion of youth, that over time things will work themselves out, somehow. This is the point at which life, which exists in time, and comedy, which does not, diverge. Here then is where a film such as Crazy, Stupid, Love either gropes for a deeper truth or else wilfully lies. Perhaps it does both.