Silver Screen: Going the Distance ***
Offscreen couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long evince a significant lack of chemistry in the new romantic comedy Going the Distance. The two don’t so much clash as seem like brother and sister, which makes for some awkward love scenes, and yet the movie is surprisingly effective, if you can get past that lingering ickiness factor, thanks to a serviceable script by first-timer Geoff LaTulippe and a quasi-ciné ma-vé rité approach from documentarian-turned-feature director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen).
Garrett (Long) is a mid-level record-company man stuck scouting cool bands he can’t manage and managing tremendously uncool bands for his disaffected boss (Ron Livingston). He’s living some vague approximation of the dream, at least, when he meets Erin (Barrymore), a grad student working an internship at a well-respected New York newspaper we are repeatedly reminded is not the New York Times, despite totally seeming like the New York Times. They meet in a bar, immediately take a fancy to one another, and then bump pretties, after which Erin confesses that she’s leaving in a few weeks to return to school in California. They decide to stick it out anyway, and embark on a long-distance relationship, the complications of which comprise the crux of the plot.
It’s a simple premise Burstein plays straight, with no gimmicks to quirk it up, and that adherence to reality is consistently the movie’s greatest strength. Going the Distance is about this particular relationship, but it’s more broadly about the perils of long-distance romance at large, and it gets them right more often than not. There are other romantic temptations in their respective cities, time zones to complicate phone conversations, false starts at phone sex, and estrangement via overpriced airline tickets.
Going the Distance also deals nicely with the age-old dilemma of career versus romance, but with a timely hook that gives the classic conflict a slightly different spin. Garrett works in the record industry, and Erin’s a journalist, which is to say they’re both working on the frontlines of the recession; two crumbling industries make for untidy lives. The harsh realities of both these businesses are captured with impressive fidelity to the truth; the movie strains to make, although ultimately shies away from, the point that some choices are all but impossible to make, suggesting even that opting for a relationship over a job might not always be the best decision— borderline heresy in a rom-com.
That said, Going the Distance isn’t entirely outside the genre-approved mold. Much time is spent with kooky supporting characters: two uncouth, doofus buddies for Garrett (the hilarious Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis, who I just recently realized was not actually Chris Parnell) and a serious-minded sister for Erin (Christina Applegate, improbably married to the schlubby but very funny Jim Gaffigan). All these characters are straight out of chick-flick-comedy central casting. Day is a wacky eccentric who offers consistently bizarre advice, and Applegate is a judgmental shrew whose type-A personality sets her up as the straight woman for Gaffigan’s quips. A lot of this stuff is funny; in fact, pretty much all of the good jokes come from the supporting cast, but there’s real tonal dissonance between the movie they seem to be in and the more dramatic one Long and Barrymore are making.
Still, Burstein has made a romantic comedy that does more than just pander to its target audience or serve as fodder for a litany of Farrelly-style jokes (although the movie is surprisingly foul-mouthed and occasionally a little too filthy for its own good). It’s not quite dedicated to documentary-level mumblecore seriousness of the similarly themed Nights and Weekends, for instance, but the characters and situations are recognizable, and though Going the Distance is overly sentimental, the sentiment is a good one.