What Crazy, Stupid Love taught me about pacing (spoilers!)

A week or so ago I saw Crazy, Stupid Love, and when I left the theatre, I felt like a Crazy Stupid Loser for having spent almost $10 to sit through that movie.  When I saw the previews, I wanted to believe, but I had my doubts.

I haven’t seen a good ensemble movie since Love Actually, and I allow that movie generous leeway because it is a Christmas movie, and a very happy one full of upbeat Christmas music, which I cannot dislike.  Even if someone were telling me he/she planned to choke me to death with my own dirty socks, as long as upbeat Christmas music were playing in the room, I probably wouldn’t mind.  Hell, even a song from the somber sub-genre of wish-you-were-here Christmas music would make the whole scene poetic.

But then other movies tried to follow this recipe but forgot to add the Christmas.  That’s how we ended up with horrible crap like Valentine’s Day.  Christmas ≠ Valentine’s Day.  One is an entire season of hope and love; it’s the half of the Christian narrative that everyone likes because no one feels guilty about it.  (When the other half rolls around, every trip to Easter-basket-central CVS invokes massive guilt over stolen office staplers and live-in boyfriends.  [As it should, sinner!  *thonk*  Okay.  I shouldn’t have thrown it.  I’m not perfect either…  But I’m close!  Ha-ha!  *throws another stone and runs away* then *returns, remorseful, covered in cuts and bruises*])

The other “holiday” is a season of resentment.  Married people wish for the early days when they could stand to be in the same room without plotting the perfect spousal murder.  Single people hate the world and everyone in it.  Dating people worry that he/she’s not the one, or they worry that he/she is the one, or they worry that the one is a he/she.  The only people who like Valentine’s Day are high schoolers too stupid to realize they’ve been tricked into spending $30.  (What do you mean ‘I bet you’re single?’  *throws another stone*  No, I’m sorry.  That was uncalled for.  Throw it back.  Not that har–*knocked out*  *wakes up hours later, dying of thirst and confused about name and other people occupying residence*)

But let’s be honest: the only good ensemble movie is It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  Don’t argue, because you know it’s true.  (BUT, you say, WHAT ABOUT THE DEPARTED ETC.?)  Sure, some movies have more than one famous person, but an ensemble movie follows a formula much like a collection of short stories with a common theme and a few common characters.  Maybe they’re all after the same thing, but each story could stand alone, because each member of the ensemble carries his or her own narrative.

However, I was sucked in by my fondness for the principals in Crazy Stupid Lossofninedollars.  All four (five if we’re counting Marissa Tomei, who rides through Hollywood on the back of her Oscar like it’s a broom) of them are wonderful in their own right, and I thought it couldn’t go wrong if they were all together.  Once again, my judgment failed me.  Just like when I said Marissa Tomei’s only good work was My Cousin Vinny.  Just like the time my friends convinced me to go sledding in my bikini because it’d be funny if we filmed it.  Just like the time I dated the guy who collected bowie knives.

The principals are certainly acceptable in their roles.  Likeable, even.  But… HERE BE SPOILERS… I saw the “surprise” coming like it was a deer staring at me from the middle of an icy road.  I didn’t want it to happen.  I wanted something, anything to happen instead.  I wanted to have accidentally driven into Jurassic Park so a T-Rex would come along and chomp the deer right out of the road.  But there was no magical movie T-Rex.  The surprise smeared its offensive self all over my windshield.

Emma Stone is shown early in the story.  Her hair is dyed darker than usual in this movie.  Hmmm.  How curious.  Oh, and then Julianne Moore’s hair is also that same shade of reddish brown…  Hmmm.  How curi…o… wait a second.  I bet she’s her daughter.  1 hr 45 minutes later: yep.

But that’s not the real problem.  The real problem is the pacing.  Way too much of the movie focuses on Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in some bar learning and teaching how to be a smooth lady killer, respectively.  In real-world time, that part of the movie is only about 20 minutes, I’d guess.  But in the movie it felt like at least an hour.

This causes fatigue later in the movie, when it seems to keep going on and on and on and why are these floors so sticky I mean have they never heard of a mop?  The initial break up between the adults only takes a few minutes.  Then Ryan Gosling takes Steve Carrell under his wing (GOSLING–WING–GET IT?  Ahahahahahahah–*thoink*  *passes out*).  It’s probably several weeks long, this transition.  Carrell has to go from loser to smoother to slick.  And once he’s there, the story picks up again.  But that was twenty minutes, and by now we’ve forgotten about most of the rest of the movie.

Remember the club scene in Black Swan?  It feels like it goes on for five minutes or more, but in reality it is under a minute.  The whole scene = images and sound and more images.  It doesn’t try to interpret anything.  It just shows us images and lets us decide.  We infer the passage of time.  To its detriment, Crazy Stupid Love tries to tell us too much, and I think this applies to fiction, too.

I often find myself laying out way too much of a scene that can be summarized in a line.  If a character has a phone conversation, the content of which must then be relayed to another character, it’s tempting for me sometimes to relive the entire thing for the other character.

Example:

“What did he say?”

“It wasn’t good.”

She was quiet for a few seconds.  “Are you going to tell me?”

“He said that he heard about you.  About you throwing the rocks and claiming to be perfect.”

“What?  Who told him?”

“I don’t know.  But he said that he knows you’re not perfect, that he has proof, and that maybe you two should break up.”

“But what about Valentine’s Day?”

“That’s a terrible movie.  Oh–you mean coming up.  He said maybe it should be a stag night for both of you.”

“What an ignorant boob.  Stags are male deer in England.  How could I be a stag?”

I shrugged, confused and annoyed to be in the middle of this.

______________OR______________

“What did he say?”

I told her everything.  About what he’d heard, stag Valentine’s Day–everything.

“What an ignorant boob.  Stags are male deer in England.  How could I be a stag?”

I shrugged, confused and annoyed to be in the middle of this.

Shakespeare, right?  *thud*  STOP THROWING ROCKS AT ME.

The first adds nothing to the story, assuming these characters are already established.  We don’t need the conversation a second time.  The only time we would is if one person were to lie about the contents of the conversation.  Then we would need to see it happen.

The same thing is true of change over time.  It’s better to show the reader things have changed.  A character can be looking at the short green stalks of corn in one section, and walking noisily through the cobb-less, brown rows in another.  We get it.  Time passed. Steve Carrell’s transformation could have taken 5 minutes if imagery were used properly.

If they wanted to show that he was changing, but still holding on to the old Steve, a 10-second scene of him putting away fancy new shoes in his closet, while considering throwing away his old nerdy ones, but deciding at the last second to hide them in the back of the shoe rack would have done all the work we needed.

The moral of the story is this: your audience is not as stupid as you think they are. 

They will understand.  They see clues.  They notice chronological markers. They remember past scenes.

Of course, there are other problems with Crazy Stupid Letmeoutofthistheatre.  They are (list not exhaustive):

  • 95-99% of it was filmed on the studio lot, and it’s obvious.
  • The cliche little boy in love with an unattainable woman.  Snooze.  Love Actually did it better, and even then it was a smidge lame.
  • Emma Stone’s connection to the plot is obvious because she is so unconnected–we know she’s got to be related to everyone somehow, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.  (Then again, I am a gen– I take it back.  I take it back…)
  • Unmotivated character changes.  Ugh.  Steve Carrell demands his daughter leave his house because she’s dating Ryan Gosling.  What?  Wait, which movie is this?  Was I rufied and dragged into a different theatre?  All throughout this thing, we’ve been shown Steve Carrell’s character.  And suddenly he’s going to demand his 27-year-old daughter leave because she’s dating a reformed Lothario?
  • Unmotivated characters in general.  Emma Stone is thinking Josh Groban will propose to her, but she obviously doesn’t like him (at least, we’re given no indication that she does; plus, he’s a skeeze).  And then when he doesn’t propose, she chugs booze and is instantly drunk (if only it were true!) and chews him out in a big ol’ I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR moment that was entirely unmotivated, cliche, and stupid.
  • A teenager taking nudey pictures for a grown, married man.  I’m tempted to call this unmotivated, but really it’s just stupid.
  • Aforementioned teenager giving aforementioned nudey pictures to aforementioned married man’s adolescent son.  I guess she’s just a jailbird all around.  Sex criminal at 17.  You go, girl!
  • Big public forum in which characters profess their undying love… for one… anotherzzzzzzzzzz  *thonk*  Oh–gosh–how long was I out?

It fails as an ensemble film because the story lines don’t stand on their own; it fails as a romance because the only romantic part is between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and that part is told to sit down pretty quickly; it fails as a comedy because it just does; and it fails as a movie because the pacing is abysmal.

And that’s what I learned about pacing from Crazy Stupid Lurve.

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