Where is my boundary-respecting romance? Crazy, Stupid, Love. and This Lullaby

by Tessa

I believe that people should be free to read, listen to, and watch what they want, as long as people weren’t harmed in the production of the stuff being read, watched, and listened to. I also retain my right to be offended by the culture that is reflected in such entertainment items, and my impulse to go and blog about it.
So please don’t take this criticism as a call to censor the stuff I’m criticizing.

On the way back to the States last Wednesday I decided to indulge in the inflight entertainment system. I picked a romantic comedy that I’d heard of called Crazy, Stupid, Love. mostly because a former very personable America’s Next Top Model contestant was cast in a minor role and I wanted to support her in some intangible way. And the rest of the cast was respectable: Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone.  And it had received good reviews. They called it “touching“, “honest,” “satisfying, mature” “smart and heartfelt“, “consistently engaging“… and I could go on.


Crazy, Stupid, Love.  isn’t absurd or awkward enough to be funny and its ideas of love are mostly repulsive instead of romantic. The throughline of the picture is the idea that if you love someone enough you’ll fight for them, and in doing so find yourself. On its face, not the worst philosophy on which to base an ensemble romantic comedy.  Unfortunately, the result is a jumble of people at best ineffectively expressing themselves and at worst engaging in stalking and harassment.

I need to summarize the movie in painful detail to make it clear why I hate it. SPOILERS.

Steve Carrell’s character’s wife (Julianne Moore) wants a divorce because, as a couple, they can’t connect with each other anymore. She’s slept with a guy at work (Kevin Bacon). Steve Carrell rolls out of a moving car so he doesn’t have to hear her rationalizations and slinks away to drink in bars and mutter about Kevin Bacon. He mutters so much that Ryan Gosling hears him. This bar is Ryan Gosling’s usual spot for chatting up ladies and taking them home. He feels bad for Steve, so he does a makeover montage, slaps Steve’s face a lot, and teaches him how to pick up women, starting with Marisa Tomei, who Steve sleeps with and never calls again. This works wonders for Steve.

MEANWHILE, Steve’s kids have a babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). His 13 year old son (Jonah Bobo) is in love with her. She catches him masturbating. He apologizes but says it’s okay because he was thinking of her, and their age gap won’t matter in a little bit. She is appropriately horrified. He continues to send her gross text messages and proclaim his infatuation in front of the whole school. He also is mean to Kevin Bacon when Kevin Bacon goes on a date with his mom. He is operating on the assumption that love means one soulmate, and that means if you’re in “love” and your object of “love” doesn’t accept that, you should not listen to them and plow on regardless because love conquers all.

ALSO there’s this girl (Emma Stone) who is dating a clueless lawyer who doesn’t appreciate her. When he doesn’t propose to her and in fact expresses doubts about whether he wants to be that serious, she dumps him and seeks out that hot guy who hit on her in that one bar one time (Ryan Gosling). Against their intentions, they make each other laugh and want to have conversations with each other, and soon are boyfriend and girlfriend.

BUT, TWIST! She’s Steve Carrell’s daughter. And he can’t deal with the fact that his daughter is dating this cad who very generously helped save him from a terrible depression and regain his confidence. He decides instead never to speak to his daughter again as long as she’s dating this dude she really likes and who is serious about her. It even ruins his chances of reconciling with his wife who seems to maybe miss him?

HOWEVER, seeing his son make a graduation speech about how love is not worth it, because the babysitter has made it clear that she was in fact in love with Steve Carrell this whole time by taking a nude photo that she never sent but her parents found, makes Steve Carrell realize that his son is wrong now, but right previously, that he still needs to fight for his one true love whom he met in 5th grade. He interrupts his son’s speech to make his own speech, which the audience seems to find heartwarming instead of slightly deranged, and this speech even warms the babysitter’s heart. She slips the son one of those nude photos after the graduation and implies that he was right all along, maybe in a couple years he’ll be a stud and his persistence will have paid off and isn’t life wacky?

And I guess Steve Carrell forgave Ryan Gosling?


illustration by Laura Mardon, CC licensed on Flickr

illustration by Laura Mardon, CC licensed on Flickr

Reasons to hate this movie:

1. It tells us that persistence is a sign of True Love, through the wisdom of a 13 year old who should know better.

2. It tells us that True Love is destiny and can never be broken, and there’s one perfect person for everyone.

3. Steve Carrell’s character is wishy-washy and unself-aware in an almost boring way – he’s hung up on his wife’s infidelity, quickly falls for the double standard of being disgusted by the same one-night-stand behavior from Gosling that allowed him to start feeling a little human again. I’m sure these are pretty universal character traits, but they’re so rote as to be yawn-inducing – aren’t we beyond this yet? Can I see something a little different from a sad-sack recent divorcee? He’s got legitimate pain but processes it selfishly and then doesn’t own up to that, and his redemption isn’t self-discovery as much as retreating to an old version of himself that feels comfortable, because he can’t stand the pain of trying to be a new person.

Reasons to like this movie:

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s scene where they first go home together and share real laughter and Ryan Gosling says “They’re pants for my calves. Calf-pants.”

After watching the whole movie I was reminded of my reaction to a Sarah Dessen book I read last fall. Rebecca, a fan of the Dessen, suggested her for a Sharing Our Snacks post, or possibly a joint discussion, because “she’s extremely formulaic in a way that usually makes me hate someone, but in the ones of hers I liked (Just Listen,The Truth About Forever, and Lock & Key) even though I could tell they were formulaic, I found myself so impressed by the formula that I didn’t care.”


I read This Lullaby and The Truth About Forever and did enjoy them both, for the reasons R. mentions.  But I couldn’t help but like This Lullaby against my better judgement. Its love interest, Dexter, starts out in his pursuit of the protagonist, Remy, by demonstrating textbook signs of a narcissistic, controlling stalker, and no one seems to notice or care. Haven’t they read The Gift of Fear yet?

Things I hated about Dexter, listed in chronological order

Interaction One:

When he first accosts Remy in the dealership he “plop[s] down hard” in the chair next to her, “knocking [her] sideways against the wall; it was jarring and [she] hit [her] elbow on the modling there, right in the funny bone.” (10). He smiles at her although she is visibly angry about it  and pretends that nothing is wrong, instead asking “‘How’s it going?’” and when she asks what his problem is, and has to elaborate because he pretends not to know what the problem is, by saying “You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.”(11) He sidesteps her direct confrontation by admonishing her use of foul language.  In fact, he doesn’t acknowledge it until he’s told her that he saw her across the room and felt chemistry with her, and it was only his enthusiasm that caused him to bump into her – as if this is excuse enough.  She tells him directly to “‘Go away.’” (12) and he just smiles and tells her that the song that’s playing will be “their song”.  When she tries to ignore him and catch someone else’s attention he grabs her hand and writes his name and phone number on her palm.

But we’re supposed to side with Dexter because Remy is so cynical & impervious to LURVE that her attitude is out of line. Remy is “such a hard-ass” (48) according to her co-workers.  She’s damaged by her past choices–after all, she places bets on the length of her mother’s marriages, how heartless of her.

So Dexter is totally justified in being a creepy stalker to get through her terrible facade. According to the book.

Interaction Two:

Remy is at the bar. Dexter comes up behind her, brushes up against her, whispers in her ear, and includes his drink with her order even though she is clearly not happy to see him. She tells him “You are not with me.” (33) and he replies “…not technically. But that could change.” He tells her that he’s in a band and will write a song for her. She is not impressed and tells him to not call her a “chick.”  Then he says “I think you like me” and she responds “I really do not.” (34)

At this point, a normal person with a clear sense of boundaries would leave her the hell alone. But Dexter is not that person. After she pointedly does not introduce him to any of her friends, and walks off telling them to ignore him so he’ll lose interest, he says “Oh, ye of little faith. I’m just getting started.”

Yes, and I am getting started on documenting your behavior so I can file a restraining order against you. Seriously? This is your romantic protagonist?

He sits down at the booth, uninvited, and tells the group how he met Remy, who asks him AGAIN if he will go away (35). He gets up, not because Remy asked him but because the band is ready to play. He asks Remy: “I’ll see you later?” She responds “No.” He says “Okay, then! We’ll talk later.” (36).

Warning signs! Warning signs! Here’s a guy who ignores your direct, stated requests for him to leave you alone. He has demonstrated that he has no interest in who you are or what you care about, because he’s in a delusional fantasy world where you two are meant to be together. He doesn’t want to talk to you and get to know you, he wants to force himself on you and talk about himself.

Hearsay interlude, or, Remy cannot escape Dexter even when he is not there.

One of Dexter’s bandmates shows up to her salon to apply for a job. He tells Remy: “He’s still talking about you.” She says “Why? He doesn’t even know me.” Fair question! the guy says “Doesn’t matter. You’re  officially a challenge. He’ll never give up now.” (51-52).  Remy is not a person. She is “a challenge”.

feel free to picture Dexter this way, as Google interprets "scary guy" (drawing by fortes on Flickr)

feel free to picture Dexter this way, as Google interprets “scary guy” (drawing by fortes on Flickr)

Interaction Three:

Dexter’s band is playing at Remy’s mom’s wedding. Remy spies on him from behind a Dumpster and thinks maybe he’s kind of cute even if he is “annoying”. She is apparently ignorant of the warning signs of abusers, probably because it’s not covered in health class. But before she can go over to him some girls come out of the back door to flirt with him, and she leaves before she hears his answer to “Do you have a girlfriend?” assuming that she knows how he’s going to finish his sentence, because she is apparently stuck in a badly plotted teen movie.

Anyway. Both she and Dexter are conveniently stranded at the end of the reception. She goes over to him and sits down so she can call a cab. They’re actually kind of having a real conversation, but then he decides to force her to eat cake. She has to refuse FIVE TIMES in a row.

Then they actually talk to each other and he doesn’t try to force himself into her cab. And at this moment, she starts to like him. Probably because he’s not being a total creep.

But… but then he gets her to give him a ride in her car (86) and deliberately sticks fries on her gearshift when she tells him she has a no-food policy in the car, like a toddler.

Re-reading these parts to remember them, I feel angry at myself for continuing to read the book and enjoying part of it. I should have thrown it across the room after the second interaction. But originally I wanted to continue reading to see if Dexter was revealed to be the abuser he clearly was. HINT: HE IS NOT. THEY END UP FALLING IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER.

And yet, there are many different kinds of romantic relationships depicted in This Lullaby (not even going into the non-romantic ones)

Relationship map:

Remy + Jonathan
Remy + Dexter
Remy + her past
Lissa + Adam
Chloe + singlehood
Chris + Jennifer Anne
Remy’s Mom Barbara + Don
Remy’s Mom Barbara + Remy’s Dad
Drummer + Coffee Shop Manager

And they’re dealt with realistically. So much so that I went on to read more Sarah Dessen, and I will continue to read her books and enjoy them.

This Lullaby really makes me uncomfortable and challenges my commitment to saying that books don’t have to teach lessons, especially young adult books. Because I really wanted this book to give Dexter a smackdown. I wanted it to clearly state how much of an ass he was being, how wrong his behavior was, and to punish him for it.

Remy doesn’t condone his behavior but she does give him a pass and she looks beyond his wrongheaded attention-grabbing tactics, and Dexter ends up having some good qualities.  This Lullaby doesn’t come down either way on the issue of how Dexter and Remy meet. And there is a large part of me that wants a big warning sign slapped on the front saying “THERE ARE BETTER WAYS and DEXTER IS THE EXCEPTION”, but I also know that that wouldn’t solve the problem. I’ll just imagine that Dexter grows up and finds less scary ways to talk to women.

Every time I see entertainment reflecting the way popular culture accepts this kind of behavior as romantic it makes me sad. Can someone recommend me some better alternatives?



  1. weheartya

     /  March 16, 2013

    Hrm. Kristan here, and I don’t want to speak for all the WHYA girls because I don’t know if they’ve seen Crazy Stupid Love or what they think of it, but I respectfully disagree with your analysis. I suppose your plot summary is technically accurate, but I feel that your language reflects your perception of the events and thus colors everything in favor of your interpretation. (Which… this is a blog! of course you can do that! I’m not crying foul, just pointing out!) I could do the same thing, but instead skew everything more positively, and people might react very differently.

    (That, of course, is okay too! We’re allowed to disagree! Polite & intelligent disagreement is healthy!)

    Anyway. I believe CSL *was* absurd and awkward, and thus we’re not supposed to think anything these people are doing is right/healthy. (Hence why none of them stick with it… Wife ends affair; husband — and even the young buck — abandon sleeping around; teenager gives up on inappropriate crush.) But they are guided by their deep love for one another (husband/wife, father/daughter, father/son, man/woman, guy/gal, and of course guy/bro) so they bumble their way toward the possibility of a happy ending. Not even a guaranteed happy ending! Just the *possibility* of it. And I think THAT is the point of the movie: Do the best you can to be worthy of the love you want, and (even if you are a moron along the way) you just might have a chance.

    • Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from. Thank you for giving your perspective and reading!

      I think it was just not absurd or awkward enough to be unrealistic or satirical, so I did think that ultimately it was trying to show the audience something about love, and I didn’t like what it was showing. The subplot with the little kid really bothered me, because he “won” and didn’t really give up. I didn’t see Carrell being guided by much of anything except nostalgia and comfort, and I didn’t see the wife really going through any journey as a character except being regretful. We shall have to agree to disagree!

      • weheartya

         /  March 17, 2013

        Somewhat related (perhaps more to the Sarah Dessen part of the post), S.E. Sinkhorn has a great post about being able to enjoy “problematic” media (TV, books, etc.): http://maybegenius.blogspot.com/2012/12/how-i-met-your-mother-cuddly-sexism.html

        And then somewhat related to THAT (and back to CSL), HIMYM recently did an episode about how “crazy” all depends on perception and reciprocation. Like, watching someone while they sleep is sweet if you’re a couple, but creepy if you’re not. Or a guy calling a girl every day is sweet if she’s interested in him, or creepy if she’s not.

      • cool, thanks for the links!

  2. Dude, I so agree with everything you say here! And I felt the same way about This Lullaby—I *really* hated their relationship. I especially hated that the book treated Remy as if she had a disease (not being automatically super excited about dating), so we the readers were supposed to be on Dexter’s side in rooting for him to “cure” her of her disease by *forcing* her to acknowledge that she is a person who can feel romantically. I mean, COME ON! Are we really supposed to believe that just because someone’s number one priority isn’t going on a date that it’s because they are incapable of love?! No, of course not.

    I was doubly saddened by This Lullaby because Dessen had previously written another novel (Dreamland) that’s all about a girl’s slow descent into an abusive relationship. I didn’t really enjoy Dreamland but it definitely represents the kind of controlling, aggressive, objectifying, inconsiderate behavior that you’re describing here, only it casts it as abusive. So, it’s not as if Dessen isn’t aware that these traits can turn, in an instant, from borderline creepy to flat-out abusive.

    I still want us to do a joint review about Dessen because maybe you can help me figure out why the books of hers that follow the same formula (Truth About Forever, Lock & Key, and Just Listen) are so appealing to me but I don’t like any of her others even though they are really similar to the formula . . . Dessen has a new one coming out in June, The Moon & More, so maybe that could be the moment for a consideration of the entire oeuvre. Yes, I just used the word oeuvre to describe Sarah Dessen’s YA romances.

    • I definitely want to read more. There’s something so delicious about a formula done well sometimes. Let’s try to crack the code!

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