Drive (18), Crazy Stupid Love (12A) (3/5, 2/5)

Gosling goes the extra mile
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The Canadian-born actor Ryan Gosling, star of one of the year's best movies, Blue Valentine, can be seen this week playing two different kinds of pickup guy. Neither of the characters is very likeable – one a lothario, one a stunt driver – but they are unfailingly charismatic and command the space in a way that's both sexy and dangerous. Gosling is tall, with a long, rather chinny face and a soft voice. At 30, he's poised right on the brink of superstardom.

In Drive, he plays a classic American loner whose job has become his name. By day he drives stunt cars for low-budget Hollywood movies; by night he drives getaway cars for lowlife thieves. He's dispassionate about the work, though also a thoroughgoing professional. "There's a hunded thousand streets in this city," he says, and the opening sequence suggests he knows most of them: he picks up two robbers from a heist and proceeds to dodge around the streets, bamboozling the police cruisers and helicopters that give chase. A good wheelman doesn't just outrun his pursuer, he outwits him, too.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn sets this up as a kind of LA nocturne, borrowing the neon glaze of Michael Mann's urban noirs and a propulsive 1980s score redolent of To Live and Die in LA. (I'd swear the location of the long concrete basin halfway through the film is a homage to the latter). Refn has also watched Walter Hill's 1978 thriller The Driver, in which Ryan O'Neal plays a similarly close-mouthed pro, right down to the allegorical name – Driver. Gosling's character lives in a shabbily anonymous apartment where he's been getting to know his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan – a bit wet), and her young son. Only in their company does he permit himself a wry half-smile. When Irene's husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison and walks straight into trouble, Driver takes it upon himself to help the family out of it.

It's pulp, of course, and increasingly violent with it. Refn, no stranger to bloody mayhem following his Pusher trilogy and Bronson biopic, lets loose with a near-vampiric relish for the red stuff. A shotgun ambush leaves a motel room looking like a slaughterhouse, and you may not care to linger over the scene in which a man is literally stomped to death. These atrocities are tempered to a degree by a European sense of composition, the plentiful use of slo-mo and Newton Thomas Sigel's glistening cinematography. A crisscrossing plot has Driver's crippled old boss (Bryan Cranston – great) getting in over his head with two bad hats, one of them played by the centaur-like Ron Perlman, the other, brilliantly, by Albert Brooks as a former movie producer with a nasty streak.

As for Gosling, he plays it slow and cool. I didn't care for his habit of keeping a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, but his lo-o-o-ng languid pauses before he deigns to speak are worthy of Clint's Man With No Name. And just as Clint favoured a humble poncho and a mule, Driver wears a cheapo quilted bomber and drives a run-of-the-mill silver Chevy Impala. It's not your clothes or your ride that matters, it's your attitude, and this guy has it in spades.

I'm not sure what Gosling has in the ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, but I know I don't want any of it. This time he plays a jerk stud named Jacob who decides, unbelievably, to take pity on the lonely fellow crying into his cranberry juice at the local nightspot. This would be Cal (Steve Carell), cuckolded by his wife and bewildered by his newly single state. "I'm going to help you rediscover your manhood," Jacob tells him. "Do you have any idea when you lost it?" "A strong case can be made for 1984," says Cal. Then, in a bromantic tribute to Pretty Woman, the smooth operator takes the sadsack on a shopping expedition. Out go his manky trainers and overlarge suit, in come snappy threads and a decent haircut; before you can say "This is in dubious taste" he's bedded several random women, including the lovely Marisa Tomei.

Meanwhile, a host of other would-be liaisons struggle towards resolution. Cal's estranged wife Emily (Julianne Moore) is having a sort-of office romance with Dave (Kevin Bacon). Their 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo) has an unrequited crush on his 17-year-old babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who in turn holds a secret torch for Cal, who's been spying on the wife he still loves from the shadows of their yard. And Jacob, who for once in his life struck out when he tried to pick up Hannah (Emma Stone), gets a second chance when she goes back to the glinty singles bar – do these places still exist? – on the rebound from her awful boyfriend. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You, Philip Morris), the film is at once coyly sexual and stodgily conventional: the adults are mixed up, while the kids are supposedly blessed with "wisdom". Dan Fogelman's script occasionally throws a firecracker, but mostly settles for morale-sapping blather like: "I don't know when you and I stopped being us." Ugh.

It also wastes a strong cast. Julianne Moore is stuck with a character too irresolute to be suffered; Marisa Tomei is insultingly underused, so too Analeigh Tipton, who's very funny and vivid in her few scenes. As for the central pairing, Gosling's designer-stubbled womaniser gets to show off a remarkable six-pack and a line of patter that dimly recalls the 1980s; he's slick and quick and not that charming. But at least he creates a character. Steve Carell is still doing variations on his 40-Year-Old Virgin, and looking ever more brittle. Having floundered through his midlife crisis he decides that the best way to apologise is by hijacking his son's valedictorian speech in front of the whole school. Crazy? Not really – just stupid.