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Baltimore Sun

Why Steve Carell is great in 'Crazy, Stupid, Love.'

Steve Carell has always been a master of implosion. He's at his pungent, original best suggesting currents of thought and feeling roiling right beneath the surface and also running deep, so when he lets them out the effect is cathartic, funny and revelatory all at the same time. Carell smooching Catherine Keener endlessly in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is a contemporary comic milestone, kicky and true. And he was keenly sympathetic as the suicidal academic who shakes off self-loathing in "Little Miss Sunshine" to become part of a family team. He never broke character: He made speeding through an automatic door seem like a triumph of the will.

For the last few years -- until "Crazy, Stupid, Love." -- movie producers seemed intent on stupidly exploiting Carell's knack for sneaking humanity into baggy-pants comedy. "Date Night" and "Dinner for Schmucks" were excruciatingly ham-fisted (let's not even talk about "Evan Almighty"). And Carell was all wrong for Maxwell Smart, the blundering yet incredibly lucky agent in "Get Smart." (For one thing, he and the moviemakers made Smart so smart you couldn't believe he'd judge himself inferior to men whose egos are on steroids.)

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In "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Carell the Great is back. You know it right from the opening sequence. He expresses both the shocked complacency of a husband who doesn't see it coming when his wife (Julianne Moore) says she wants a divorce -- and the existential vertigo of this man realizing that he's losing the love of his life.

Playing that kind of situation dramedy for real -- and still making it funny -- is the kind of challenge that separates the men from the boys. Carell pulls it off, establishing this film immediately as an inspired, pathos-streaked farce for adults of all ages.

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The surprises start right at the beginning, and you'll get no spoilers from me. Let's just say Carell uses his subterranean resources to detonate a steady stream of quirky laughs that double as shocks of recognition. He knows how to match both his deep, wounded daze and his resurging powers of concentration to awkward physical movements or a sort of slapstick stasis. He's ticklish even when he maintains focus and stillness while in pain.

And Ryan Gosling matches him as the chic-saloon Lothario who sees that Carell's character needs dating lessons and a makeover. The men played by Gosling and Carell share a mysterious rapport. They're buddies -- well, not at first or second sight, but definitely at third sight. A few years ago, Gosling told me in an interview that his favorite movie at age 13 was "East of Eden." I asked him if that meant he was a James Dean fan. He said, "As I get older I'm just as much a Gene Wilder fan, or Buster Keaton or Bill Murray or Klaus Kinski or Abbott and Costello - they all get me somewhere, they all do it differently." After watching him in this movie, I finally believe him.

If Carell has a weakness as a performer, it's that he can insist too much on his own vulnerability and niceness; he even softened up "Dan In Real Life," and that was a Jell-O mold of a movie. But Carell never goes slack in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," not even when the film does (only near the end, and only fleetingly).

I'd love to see Carell do another terrific wacky character like the idiot-savant weatherman in "Anchorman" - he never wavered from the brilliant shtick of playing "Brick Tamland" as if he really didn't know how to exploit any of his 48 I.Q. points. (His scarily bright blank stare bespoke his inability to process the simplest incident.)

Carell should still do that type of zany stunt, but only as a supporting specialty numbers in another star's slapstick blockbusters. Carell has grown so much as an actor that he's got to keep seeking roles with a glimmer of substance, like the husband who learns to do the marital-limbo rock in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."


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