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This painful comedy about the agonies of love has some deftly observed moments and strong performances but its essential tawdriness overwhelms its efforts to be cuddly and life-affirming.

Everyone is miserably in love with the wrong person.  Steve Carell plays Cal, married for almost 25 years to his teenage sweetheart, Emily (Julianne Moore), who tells him in the opening scene that she wants a divorce.  Their 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is in love with their 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (the heart-twistingly vulnerable Analeigh Tipton).  Jessica has a crush on Cal.  Emily slept with her co-worker, David (Kevin Bacon).  Cal goes to a bar to drown his sorrows and meets someone who is not miserable and not in love: Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who takes a different beautiful woman home from the bar every night.  Jacob tells Cal that he lost Emily because he lost his sense of what it means to be a man.  For Jacob, being a man means pitching the New Balance shoes and ill-fitting suits and manipulating women to have sex by pretending to listen to them.  Cal is soon channeling his inner playa, first seducing a teacher named Kate (Marisa Tomei in a thankless role) and then a series of montaged lovelies.  Meanwhile, Robbie is texting romantic pleas to Jessica and Jessica is following the advice of a classmate and taking nude photos of herself to give to Cal and Emily is dating David, whose role seems to be nice guy whose unfitness for love is demonstrated by everyone’s intended-to-be-funny-but-not-funny-at-all inability to pronounce his last name correctly.

Got that?  Then, just as Jacob’s method begins to work for Cal, it stops working for Jacob.  The one woman who turned him down is Hannah (Emma Stone), a recent law graduate studying for the bar exam. Circumstances lead her to return to the bar to proposition Jacob and back at his sleek bachelor pad something unprecedented happens — a night of real intimacy, talking and laughing. Now Jacob needs advice on his uncharted territory: how to be a part of a relationship that lasts more than 24 hours.

There’s an inexpressibly lovely moment as Emily calls Cal, not realizing he is right outside their house because he sneaks over at night to maintain the garden (metaphor alert).  She tells him she is in the basement trying to restart the pilot light but he can see she is upstairs and just needed an excuse to call.  And Stone continues to be one of the most endearingly honest, intelligent, and expressive performers on screen.  She shows us how the flurry of mixed emotions she feels that first night with Jacob flicker across her face as she tries to manage her feelings of confidence and fear, longing and logic.

But that is not enough to make up for the smarminess of the story’s assumptions and the characters’ behavior.  There’s an excruciating climactic scene in which two of the characters made humiliating public declarations that are intended to be gallant but come off as self-indulgent and completely inappropriate.  And other than Hannah, the characters are just not very nice.  Jessica keeps telling us she loves Cal because he is such a kind man and great father.  Not from what we see.  He shows little concern for what his children are going through with their parents’ separation or anything else they are going through.  He does not know who his son’s teacher is.  And he is awful to the women he sleeps with, which the movie seems to think is fine.  When one of them becomes angry at him because he never called her, she is portrayed as shrewish and unreasonable.  Jacob, whose only evidence of responsibility or being aware of anyone else’s needs or feelings is his decision to help Cal become a lady-killer, provides very little reason other than hotness for deserving Hannah’s love or making any effort to earn it.  The film is as callous toward the one-night-stands who get tossed aside as Jacob and Cal are.  There is no suggestion that someone should give them pointers on how to respect themselves enough not to fall for manipulative cads.  Even worse is the treatment of the Jessica/Robbie relationship.  She is, we are repeatedly told, 17.  Taking nude pictures of herself to give to a man is not just seriously bad judgment and a terrible signal to a prospective romantic partner but probably a crime.  Giving those pictures to a 13-year-old is portrayed in the film as an act of compassionate generosity when it is not just seriously bad judgment and a terrible mixed message but definitely a crime.  The movie is going for a wistful romanticism.  For me it was more like a pervy sociopathy.

 

In honor of all the wonderful teachers who are having a well-deserved break before getting back to lesson plans and grading homework, I have a giveaway just for the people who working to inspire the curiosity and critical thinking skills of the next generation. I have one each of these great titles from my very favorite DVD series for kids, I’m Dirty & I Stink and Good Night Gorilla… and More Great Sleepytime Stories.  Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with “Teacher” in the subject line and your address and the name of your school and grade you teach.  Thanks, and good luck!

The last word I thought I’d be using about a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” is “realistic,” but what I like best about this film is the way it uses the most speculative of fantasies for thoughtful exploration, not just six-guns vs. laser shooters.  Perhaps “respectful” is a more appropriate term.  Without any snarkiness or irony it shows us the way that frontiersmen a decade after the Civil War would rise to the challenge of an alien invasion the same way they battled nature and each other, making up in determination for what they lacked in knowledge and technology.

As co-star Brendan Wayne explained to me in an interview, we can’t make the kinds of iconic John Ford films his grandfather, John Wayne starred in because “you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.”  But a fight against aliens doesn’t require any nuance or sensitivity and that makes it possible to revisit the archetypes that continue to define us as a culture in a way that is both traditional and new.

As for plot, the title says it all.  A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up with amnesia.  He does not know who he is, where he got the injury to his abdomen, or how a strange metal cuff became attached to his arm.  We learn at the same time he does that his fighting skills are excellent and he has no compunction about killing — or relieving his victim of his boots, guns, and horse.  And he has eyes the color of the clear sky over the Rockies.

“What do you know?” asks the preacher (Clancy Brown) who discovers the gunman has broken into his home  “English,” says the gunman.  He seems to know how to survive, or at least how to recognize danger and the vulnerability of those who intend to attack him.

The preacher lives in a town where the hot-headed and arrogant son of the local rancher accidentally shoots a deputy sheriff.  He and the gunman are jailed waiting for federal marshalls — or for the young man’s father.  One way or the other, they will leave the jail that night.

The father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, determined to take his son home.  The marshalls arrive to take him to federal court.  And then the aliens arrive and even in this land where nothing is certain and no rules seem to apply, this is so far out of their experience they can only call the invaders “demons.”

This middle section is the most intriguing.  The cowboys can’t go to Google or watch old movies to figure out what to do.  They don’t have electricity or automatic weapons.  They have to figure out a way to fight their demons using only the same qualities and resources they bring to staking their claim on the land.

They know how to track their prey.  And Dolarhyde was a Colonel at Antietem.  That means he knows military tactics.  And what it means to lose his men.  The gunman’s memory begins to return and they get help from some unexpected sources in time for a final battle.  The film falls apart a bit here and the long list of writers and producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) may have been a factor in a disappointing last act that shows evidence of compromise and lack of focus.   The aliens themselves also seem under-imagined and the reveal of their ultimate purpose caused some laughter in the theater.

Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) likes to avoid CGI whenever possible, and he makes superb use of both the mechanical effects and the Western landscape.  The faces of Ford and Craig are a landscape of their own and both men provide heft and a sense of resolute determination that resonates with our deepest myths and reminds us why so many of them include cowboys.

No fair using Google or IMDB!  In honor of this week’s release of “Cowboys & Aliens,” who can tell me the last time Harrison Ford saddled up in a Western?