The Pickup Artiste

In Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling gets serious about comedy

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Warner Bros.

Gosling with co-star†Stone

Ryan Gosling struts into a sleek urban bar in Crazy Stupid Love like he owns the place. And the movie. It's an ensemble comedy rich with talented actors, but as Jacob, a suave seducer, Gosling is the alpha. When he's on the prowl, Jacob can make it to "Let's get out of here" in the time it takes most men to ask a name. He's a contemporary version of Warren Beatty in Shampoo but organized enough to avoid double-booking his dates — unless, of course, all parties agree to it first.

Forlorn family man Cal (Steve Carell) frequents that same singles bar and eyes the king rake with loathing. Cal has recently learned that his childhood-sweetheart wife of 25 years, Emily (Julianne Moore), wants a divorce and has slept with a colleague (Kevin Bacon) who's a 2G version of Jacob's 4G superstud. When Jacob spots this cuckolded sad sack crying into his Cape Codder, his blue eyes narrow: no man should be so pathetic. The sexual revolution is over, Jacob tells Cal. Male victory was assured "the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise." He offers to help Cal reclaim his manhood with lessons in the art of the pickup: what not to wear, what not to say and how not to care.

This comic setup (which at times evokes The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the vehicle that made Carell a movie star) would be enough for many a bromance. But Crazy Stupid Love is much more than an instruction manual for men cruising babes. It's also about how people behave when their reality and their romantic ideals don't mesh. To that end, the movie pokes its nose into multiple affairs of the heart.

There's feisty law student Hannah (Emma Stone), who gives Jacob a rare dressing-down when he tries lines on her and is wondering when her seemingly safe-bet boyfriend will propose. There's Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who's smitten with his bewitchingly nutty 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton). Jessica, in turn, loves Cal — and hates the way his wife betrayed him. ("I don't want your slutty money!" the righteous babysitter hisses when Emily arrives home from a date.) And even Emily is an appealing character — unfaithful, yes, but not unlovable.

Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who wrote and directed I Love You Phillip Morris and scripted Bad Santa), Crazy Stupid Loveis a comedy of errors. Late in the going, Dan Fogelman's deft script weaves several loose threads together in time for multiple characters to trip over them. It's madcap and unpredictable but also touching. (Carell and young Bobo are especially affecting as father and son.)

The movie's biggest surprise is the revelation of Gosling as cunning comedian. No one could doubt him as an actor — not after he played a neo-Nazi in the searing indie The Believer (2001). But he seems like the last guy who'd take on a role as frivolous and fun as that of Jacob. Gosling is serious, an artiste, an Oscar nominee for Half Nelson and an heir to Brando or De Niro. Good at playing varying shades of deranged (Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine), he's got a slightly squirrelly look that makes him an ideal villain (All Good Things). But ever since he played a tortured romantic in the 2004 sapfest The Notebook — a Love Story for the 21st century — younger audiences have adored this sinuous character actor as a leading man. (For delightful evidence, check out the witty Tumblr page F--- Yeah! Ryan Gosling.)

Crazy Stupid Love confirms that it's not just about Noah from The Notebook; it's about Gosling. His timing and delivery are impeccable (he makes Jacob sound like a menschy version of Travis Bickle), and so is his sex appeal. There are abs in this movie. Make that Abs. And then there's the Patrick Swayze — inspired move Jacob uses to close the deal with prospective conquests. We won't spoil which of the late Mr. Swayze's many dashing onscreen moments is purloined here, but suffice it to say that the Gosling pulls off the Swayze with √©lan and bashful good humor. It's destined to be rewound for years to come.