A couple years after his Reform bar mitzvah, screenwriter Dan Fogelman devoured Philip Roth’s controversial novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The tome was a gift from his cousin, Ken Gordon, now the editor of the Jewish Webzine JBooks.com, “a very literary guy who was my hero growing up,” Fogelman said from New York, where he was doing press for his new comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
“ ‘Portnoy’ was the first book I had ever read where I was laughing out loud. There was this kid masturbating into his sister’s bra, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe you’re allowed to write like this.’ ”
Coming-of-age stories also have graced Fogelman’s own comedies, which have ranged from the television pilot “Lipshitz Saves the World”; to Disney’s Rapunzel saga, “Tangled”; to “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which explores romance as it manifests among three generations of characters.
Thirteen-year-old Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is enamored of his baby sitter (Analeigh Tipton), who harbors a crush on Robbie’s dad, Cal (Steve Carell), who, in the film’s central story line, embarks upon his own midlife quest when his wife (Julianne Moore) leaves him and he is thrust, clueless, into the dating scene.
Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a lothario who takes pity on Cal, slaps him — literally — out of his despair, and mentors him in the art of seduction.
Fogelman — who sold the film’s screenplay for an astounding $2.5 million and is a top writer in Hollywood — comes off as modest and unassuming, as if he still can’t believe his own success. One can almost picture him shaking his head as, after a bidding war, he recently sold a pitch for a Tom Cruise film to Warner Bros. for $2 million, plus $3 million more if the film gets made. Fogelman has a story credit on “Cars 2,” and reportedly netted $3 million for “Imagine,” which will be his directorial debut. And production just wrapped on “My Mother’s Curse,” inspired by a real road trip Fogelman took with his late mother from her home in New Jersey to Las Vegas, starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand.
Fogelman’s childhood in New Jersey, and particularly his bar mitzvah, helped jump-start his entire career. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, he loaded up his mother’s old sea-foam-green Nissan Maxima and drove to Hollywood, where he got his first job as a production assistant on “The Howie Mandel Show.”
“I wanted to take a crack at screenwriting, so I wrote a very autobiographical movie called “Becoming a Man: The Horrifying Ordeal Otherwise Known as Robbie Levine’s Bar Mitvah,” Fogelman, now 35, said. “It was about a confused kid battling insane relatives and the fact that he might have an opportunity to get to second base with a girl at his bar mitzvah, which is haunting him and making him extremely nervous.” (For the record, there was no making out at Fogelman’s simcha.)
“I wrote it hoping that maybe a Jewish agent would see it and identify and want to represent me. And it actually worked.”
The bar mitzvah script not only got Fogelman an agent but also led to his writing job on the Disney-Pixar animated film, “Cars,” followed by screenplays for “Fred Claus,” Tangled” and, of course, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
“You spend your fair share of time in your 20s in Los Angeles just being out in bars and seeing guys have various degrees of success with women,” he said of one impetus for the film.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, I met my girlfriend and fell madly for her,” he said. “And in a very short period of time, I went from being single and alone to being in this exciting new relationship to watching it evolve quickly into one that was lovely and committed, but also facing the challenges that actually come from being in a relationship day to day.”
As Fogelman wrote the script, he said, “It was interesting for me to explore love from all the different ways people can feel it. We can all identify with the 13-year-old longing for someone older and unattainable, and the 17-year-old who is confused by impending adulthood, sexuality and emotions. And we’ve all been in the throes of first loves and in relationships that have gone off the rails and become stagnant.”
The fictional Cal re-enters the dating scene, after decades of marriage, by frequenting a glittering bar populated with almost impossibly good-looking singles.The film’s co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, intended the watering hole to be reminiscent of “whatever the bar is ‘of the moment,’ whether it be the Standard downtown or the way the Skybar was 10 years ago,” Fogelman said. “It’s the kind of scene where you’d have to put on nice big-boy clothes and be really sophisticated and sharp.”
Gosling’s character — with a six-pack so impressive his love interest, played by Emma Stone, remarks that he looks “Photoshopped” — was partly inspired by one kind of Los Angeles 30-something single. “In L.A., your progress into adulthood and adult relationships can get a little bit stunted,” Fogelman said. “My Jewish summer camp friends who stayed back East were on first or second children by the time many of my L.A. friends were just starting to get married. Things seem to happen a little slower out here — I don’t know whether it’s because careers take longer to get locked in, especially in the entertainment industry, or if it’s the culture, which can be flashy.”
His own success notwithstanding, Fogelman insists he’s a “pretty boring, regular guy.” His best friends remain his Jewish camp friends who have also moved out here. And, like the nice Jewish boy that he is (even though he describes himself as “neurotic and overthinking”), he intends “My Mother’s Curse” as an ode to his late mother, Joyce, who died three years ago following surgery to remove a tumor.
Streisand’s character even shares his mother’s name, as well as the penchant she had for collecting frog sculptures; the character is also “obsessive about drinking eight bottles of water a day, Weight Watchers and has a group of yenta friends that she relies on heavily,” Fogelman said.
“The movie’s theme is, basically, when you discover that your parent isn’t just a parent, but actually is a human being who had a life before you — and the point that a parent realizes her child is actually a grownup, and you have to let them go a little bit.
“My mom and I were exceptionally close, and I really dug her,” he said.
“Crazy, Stupid, Love” opens on July 29.