From seismic shifts to cute little “a-ha” moments, a good plot twist can rearrange a story’s dynamics for a juicier conclusion. In Clever or Contrived, I’ll take a look at the moments in books, TV and movies that need a SPOILER ALERT label.
The gist: A romantic comedy about the zigs and zags of love, whether you’re young or old. Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) cheats on Cal (Steve Carell) and wants a divorce after 25 years of marriage — or does she? A forlorn Cal, now cast out into the world of singledom, gets some tutorials in hookups from L.A. lothario Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Jacob, even though he preaches about the wonders of suave sluttiness, kind of pulls a 180 when he falls in love with a witty law student, Hannah (Emma Stone), who’s had her own disappointments in the relationship department. Oh, and there’s this awkward and unfunny subplot with Cal and Emily’s preteen son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who is crushing hard on his 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is crushing hard on Cal.
The twist: Hannah is really Cal and Emily’s daughter.
Clues: She’s a redhead like Emily. The Weavers refer to a “Nana” throughout the film, which turns out to be Hannah’s family nickname — we even get a hint when Hannah’s almost-fiance (Josh Groban) calls her “Banana.” But, most significantly, she’s the only character not explicitly tied into the Weaver family in the first act.
The reveal: Hannah shows up at the family home, bringing along Jacob. It’s first time Jacob realizes Hannah is Cal’s daughter and Cal finds out his daughter is dating a guy who taught him all about womanizing. Along with that reveal comes a naked-picture-discovery development in that babysitter subplot and another reminder of Emily’s affair with David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). All the adult males end up rolling around in a wrestling match in the backyard.
So what does it do? It’s the catalyst for probably the funniest scene in the film, and one that pulls in all the different story lines. When Cal finds out, he’s furious, and Jacob kind of has a panic attack. Then the babysitter’s dad comes and punches Cal in the face because he thinks Cal’s been sexting a teenager, and THEN David Lindhagen shows up, all smarmy like only Kevin Bacon can do smarmy, like, “Hey Emily, you left your sweater in my backseat last night, wink.” Jacob then punches the guy that ruined Cal’s life as a kind of chivalric best-bro courtesy, but of course Cal is still pissed that Jacob has been dating Hannah. The whole fight derails Cal’s romantic gesture to woo Emily back. (He re-created, in their backyard, their first date to a miniature golf course.)
In the context of Hannah’s character, the reveal doesn’t really have a lot of punch. Because this knowledge was withheld for most of the film, the parent-daughter relationship is underdeveloped. When Cal forbids Hannah from seeing Jacob again, or Jacob implores Hannah to call her dad and try to set things straight, you almost want to just fast-forward to everyone’s inevitable reconciliation. Without the weight of a positive, established relationship before the reveal, a whole “family torn asunder” ending would feel unearned. Though Crazy, Stupid, Love is a bit more somber than the stereotypical rom-com, it’s obvious from the saturated cinematography and jazzy soundtrack that this thing’s not gonna end with everyone all depressed.
But the twist isn’t really about Hannah anyway. Strip away that extra noise with the babysitter and Kevin Bacon, and the scene in the family’s backyard becomes about Cal and Jacob’s role reversal. When Cal meets Jacob at the bar, Jacob is the one who’s doling out the lady-killing wisdom. (“I’m going to help you rediscover your manhood. Do you have any idea where you could have lost it?” he says.) But then Jacob falls in love with Hannah and ends up becoming the things he tried to coach out of Cal: honest and devoted. Hannah, for all Emma Stone’s charisma, doesn’t have to do a lot on her own in the movie, but she does change Jacob, and by extension, Cal, who finally figures out that you can’t get over your soulmate. (He says as much in an impromptu speech at Robbie’s eighth-grade graduation, the movie’s lone cheeseball scene.) It all ends with Cal basically getting back together with Emily.
The best plot twists involve worldview-changing shifts for the main characters. But you can’t rate Crazy, Stupid, Love on the scale of familial-relation reveals (with “Luke … I am your father” being the insurmountable best) because Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t really that kind of movie. It’s not about essential identity or destiny or anything epic like that. It’s just a sweet little rom-com with some great performances. Though Emma Stone’s Hannah is just a spunky prop for other characters’ development, the story doesn’t ride on the shock value of her twist, so I can enjoy rewatching the story again and again.
Clever or contrived? I’ll go with clever. With extra credit for Ryan Gosling just being there.
Know how you can spot a bad plot twist? Turn on network television.
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