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'Crazy, Stupid, Love' and 'Larry Crowne' emphasize the stylish side of the male makeover

Men often go from weakling to superhero on the big screen. But two new films focus on fixing the clothes, not the muscles.

July 30, 2011|Adam Tschorn | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • In "Crazy, Stupid, Love," Cal (Steve Carell) follows Jacob (Ryan Gosling) to get his style makeover.
In "Crazy, Stupid, Love," Cal (Steve Carell) follows Jacob… (Ben Glass / Warner Bros.…)

When it comes to makeovers at the movies, the rules have always been fairly straightforward: Girls get a Cinderella story, while guys get Spider-Man.

It's pretty much been that way since the dawn of the movie makeover genre, which authors Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell trace to 1942's "Now Voyager" (starring Bette Davis) in their 2004 book "The Makeover in Movies."That film may not be familiar, but the story arc certainly is, and it can be found in movies ranging from the animated "Cinderella" (1950) to the live-action "The Princess Diaries" (2001). A fashion-challenged female character is transformed, frequently with the help of a fairy godmother/guru/gay friend, into a femme fetale, discarding the thick glasses, orthopedic shoes and potato-sack dress along the way. Our heroine emerges as if from a cocoon, an exquisite feminine beauty.

The male version of the movie makeover has a slightly different storyline; in this transformation, a 98-pound weakling is bitten by a radioactive spider or given a magic ring or the opportunity to step into a phone booth and materializes as a finely muscled superhero. A spectacular transformation to be sure, but wardrobe-wise their outfits usually don't amount to much more than bodystockings.

Until now.

This month, a pair of movies at the multiplex have traded in the cape for the clothes closet, and served up a kind of style-centric male makeover not often found on the big screen: "Larry Crowne," starring Tom Hanks and "Crazy, Stupid, Love," starring Steve Carell.

Is it simply coincidence that the two summer films dial up the stylish side of the male makeover, or do they reflect a shift in popular culture?

In "Larry Crowne," Hanks' schlubby character – who favors tucked-in polo shirts; baggy, pleated khakis, and Members Only style windbreakers – gets an extreme makeover thanks to a community college classmate who ends up putting him in tight black jeans, layered vests, shirts with embroidered detailing on the yoke, leather jackets, and, in perhaps the ultimate touch, slings a strappy messenger bag across his chest. When he makes his classroom debut in a dark, monochromatic outfit, a classmate can't resist name-checking the Man in Black. "Yo, Johnny Cash," he says.

Likewise, Steve Carell's Cal Weaver in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," is transformed -- at the hands of Lothario Jacob Walker (played by Ryan Gosling) – from a life of two-sizes-too-big brown corduroy blazers, billowy, horizontal striped polo shirts and pleated khakis into a slim, trim, layered-look ladies' man sporting Canali and Ermenegildo Zegna jackets.

In one particularly fashion-focused scene, Weaver's New Balance running shoes are tossed off a balcony during a shopping trip to the Westfield Century City shopping center, and his newfound style advisor forces him to repeat the phrase: "I am better than the Gap."

Although "The Makeover in Movies," was written specifically to address the way women were treated in the genre from 1942 to 2002, co-authors Mitchell (currently a professor of English & Film Studies at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania,) and Ford (currently professor emerita of English at Westminster), said the topic of the male makeover was one that was frequently discussed.

"We didn't have to look very far to find the superhero, which is the first kind of male makeover," Mitchell said. "Superman's alter-ego Clark Kent has all the signifiers: the glasses, the suits that hid his physique, his bumbling awkward nature and his shyness with women." It's a physical power makeover.

Mitchell thinks "Crowne" falls into a second category of men's makeover "where the goal isn't [superhero-like] power, but a kind of cool that he doesn't have to begin with. Before he's completely dorky and after he gets made over he's cooler. That happens in the 2003 Neil LaBute movie 'The Shape of Things' where Rachel Weisz is an art student who gives dorky Paul Rudd a makeover to turn him into a cool dude. I think she turns him in as an art project at the end."

The third type of male makeover, according to Ford and Mitchell, can be found in movies as diverse as "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Avatar."

"'Groundhog Day' could fit into that category as well," says Ford. "It's a movie where [Bill Murray's character] is making himself over not so much physically as psychologically – he's trying to make himself over to be a better fit with his romantic partner."

"Crazy, Stupid, Love" might be described as a hybrid: it begins as a seemingly superficial "quest for cool," but eventually evolves into "make be a better man" kind of makeover.

Nonetheless the sheer amount of screen time devoted to the building of Weaver's new wardrobe -- the handiwork of the film's costume designer Dayna Pink, who dressed him in top-of-the-line tailored pieces from lines like Ermenegildo Zegna, Burberry, Etro and Prada—is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the movie..

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