Feeling the love

Steve Carell didn’t mind the slapping. But the man-kissing was too much.

During filming for his new movie “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” a romantic dramedy about a father attempting to remake himself after his marriage hits the skids, Carell found himself on the receiving end of some surprise high jinks from costar Ryan Gosling. Like smacking. And smooching.

When Gosling improvised a scene by administering a strike across the face, Carell didn’t break. “All I wanted was for him to hit me harder and harder,” the actor said. “It was beautiful.”

Then Gosling decided to up the ante. “I just put this big Bugs Bunny kiss on Steve,” Gosling recalled. “A lot of us were laughing, but Steve is just like, ‘Don’t kiss me. Slapping is fine, but I gotta draw the line somewhere.’”

“Crazy, Stupid, Love,” opening Friday, is a sort of inversion of the actors’ usual on-screen personae. Known for intensely dramatic parts in critically lauded films such as “Half Nelson” and “Blue Valentine,” Gosling here plays a swaggering, almost satirically over-the-top ladies’ man in his first comedy. Carell -- renowned for big comedic parts in movies such as “Get Smart” and “Date Night,” and of course as television’s insufferable-but-endearing boss Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office” -- switches to a lower gear as a more serious fortysomething with relationship woes.


Filmgoers may be surprised to learn that this movie comes closer to the actors’ actual personalities: Off screen, Gosling is often the cut-up and practical joker, while Carell’s humor in real life is droll, if he’s joking at all. “There are those comedy guys who are always on and they’re thriving between takes,” costar Emma Stone said. “Steve is not that way. He’s telling stories about his family.”

“Boring. Yes, I’m boring,” Carell said when told of Stone’s comments.

Based on a dense script by Dan Fogelman and directed by “Bad Santa” writers Glen Ficarra and John Requa, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” tells of schleppy suburban dad Cal (Carell), who learns in the first scene that his wife of nearly two decades (Julianne Moore) wants a divorce.

Cal consigns himself to moping around a local bar, until he runs into Jacob (Gosling), a larger-than-life Lothario who takes Cal under his wing (and across his open palm) and coaches him in the art of the bar-stool pickup. Several colorful supporting characters, including Cal’s precocious eighth-grade son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and the opinionated law student Hannah (Stone) circulate too, in a cascade of relationships that explore themes of love and commitment, not to mention the rituals of male bonding, circa 2011.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Carell and Gosling met for lunch in the restaurant of a midtown Manhattan hotel. Carell walked in on time, impeccable in a dark sport coat and perfectly brushed hair, to promote his first project since leaving “The Office” this spring. Gosling rolled in late, sporting a bedhead and admittedly hung over.

The pair had spent the past three days gabbing to the media -- “you become a husk after a while,” Carell, 48, admitted, appearing eager to get back to vacation in Boston, where he and his family are spending the summer. Gosling, 30 and single, was eager to be, well, Ryan Gosling.

“I thought this was all going to be Steve and me pal-ing around bars at night,” Gosling said of his expectations of the shoot, which took place in Los Angeles last year. “But it turned out to be Steve and me being sent to hit on these poor extras at 8 a.m. on a set.”

It’s natural to assume Gosling is playing a version of himself as a man-about-town, or at least playing off his public image as a movie-star bachelor. But he waves away the notion.

“I already have enough pressure. People assume I can build a house because of ‘The Notebook,’” he said, referring to his character in the 2004 romantic drama who constructs a home for a girl.

(To prepare to play Jacob in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Gosling said he read “The Game” and other pickup-advice books but found them “ridiculous, like there’s some mathematical formula you can follow and find happiness.”)

Carell, meanwhile, has been married for 16 years, throwing a shadow of the real onto his “Crazy, Stupid, Love” character. “I have no frame of reference for the science of attracting the opposite sex,” Carell said. “The bar was only on a sound stage at Warner Bros., but it still felt awkward and uncomfortable. Even sitting at a bar is something my [butt] is not accustomed to doing. And it pained me that beautiful women were being paid to pretend to be attracted to me.”

That was hardly the only trial for Carell during filming “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” As they shot the movie, the directors would jump up and down behind the camera, yelling “Be funnier!” to the actors -- many of the movie’s comedic set pieces are the result of a form of trial-and-error improvisation -- while Gosling and Carell would try to one-up each other in the outrageousness department.

Gosling may have pulled off the coup de grace. In a nearly naked locker-room scene, the actor made sure his privates were positioned as uncomfortably close to Carell’s face as they could possibly be. “It was funny to watch him blink many times, and then turn away,” Gosling recalled.

As one of the more versatile comedy actors around, Carell had been the filmmakers’ dream cast member from the start. But Gosling, an Oscar nominee for his role as a drug-addicted teacher in “Half Nelson,” had little comedy experience. Ficarra and Requa said in an interview that they were skeptical he was right for the part until an hour-long meeting in which the actor turned on the charm.

“He took a character that could have been sleazy and made him hugely likable, which is where the dramatic experience comes in,” Requa said.

Gosling said it almost went a different way: “I originally wanted to play Jacob as the Situation from ‘Jersey Shore.’ But the directors thought it was a terrible idea.”

Carell said he didn’t doubt that Gosling could handle comedy but was surprised at his ability to improvise. Then he cited their three-hour initial meeting in which they discussed topics ranging from family to cartoons. “He was just such a beautiful and deep person,” Carell said, without a trace of irony.

Seeing a quizzical look from this reporter, Gosling, who had laid a napkin across his costar’s lap before the two started eating, said, “Yes, we’re having a bromance.”

Carell chimed in: “There’s nothing wrong with that,” prompting a quick reply from Gosling. “He’s just so handsome.”