Going the Distance (Paramount) is a pleasant, floppy romantic comedy that’s hard to hate—the lead couple, played by Justin Long and Drew Barrymore, are too game and appealing to inspire much snark—but also hard to love. There’s just not quite enough to the movie: not enough jokes, not enough obstacles, not enough sex. (Though there’s plenty of talk about sex. Perhaps in an attempt to break down the wall between Apatow man-comedy and gooey chick flicks, the script by Geoff LaTulippe keeps up a steady flow of profanity.) Still, I’ll give Going the Distance a pleasant, floppy stamp of approval. At least, unlike many recent romantic comedies (do I really have to name them? The Ugly Truth, All About Steve, The Proposal, et boring cetera), this film doesn’t center around two mean, shallow jerks who communicate only in some sort of rigidly gendered mating code.
Journalism student Erin (Barrymore) and record-label flack Garrett (Long) meet under realistically un-cute circumstances: At the end of a lousy day (he got dumped by his girlfriend; she realized her internship at a New York newspaper was leading nowhere), they go out, get hammered at a bar, and wind up at Garrett’s place smoking pot and having sex. I liked that the movie presents these characters’ fondness for partying not as wild debauchery but as matter-of-fact part of a certain young-adult lifestyle. Garrett and Erin aren’t pie-eyed kids; they’re in their early 30s, old enough to have lived through painful past relationships and to chafe at the limitations of their less-than-fulfilling jobs. So even when they have a six-week affair that’s so romantic it’s scored to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” they don’t necessarily assume they’ll stay together when Erin’s internship ends and she returns to her hometown of San Francisco.
But as Erin’s about to board her plane home, Garrett sprints after her (romantic comedy screenwriters, please post this near your keyboards: No more running through airports until the year 2050) and proposes a long-distance arrangement. They’ll text, Skype, attempt awkward phone sex, and visit each other a few times a year.
Going the Distance will no doubt get razzed for having such low-stakes conflict. Being bummed that plane tickets are prohibitively expensive at Christmastime is hardly the stuff of high romantic drama. But the fact is, most of our lives are made up of just such small disappointments. I appreciated this movie’s psychological minimalism: It asks us to care about the quotidian details of Erin and Garrett’s struggle to stay close, rather than contriving to place them in broad comic predicaments (though there’s at least one of those too, when they’re discovered in flagrante delicto on a dinner table). When the story’s energy does flag, Barrymore provides the juice to recharge it. She’s such a warm, earthy presence on-screen, with a loud cackling laugh that sounds genuinely amused. And she gets to crack a few good jokes of her own, a development that’s depressingly rare in a genre that often expects women to be wide-eyed foils or humorless ninnies.
Justin Long doesn’t quite have Barrymore’s firepower, but he’s carved out a niche for himself as the goofy nice-guy boyfriend who’ll do anything for love (cf. Drag Me to Hell). The supporting players are used less well. The always-funny Christina Applegate doesn’t get enough to do as Erin’s tightly wound, germ-phobic sister, and Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, as Garrett’s eccentric drinking buddies, seem thrown in as concessions to Apatow bro-comedy.
Nanette Burstein, whose previous films have been well-regarded documentaries ( American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture), doesn’t direct with the surest hand—at times, her camera performs distracting tricks unrelated to the material. But she knows how to let things happen between actors. Unlike the majority of wisecracking but dead-eyed rom-com couples, Barrymore and Long seem to take real joy in each other’s company. I’ll take that as an excuse to cling to the hope that romantic comedy, that poor, maligned, once-glorious filmic genre, may someday rise again.