REVIEW: You'll Hate Going the Distance Long Before You Relate to It
I stand before you the apparent target market for Going the Distance, the latest 'x' in the "con" column of Drew Barrymore's exasperating career ledger. After a recent expedition into critically acclaimed territory that produced her directing debut Whip It and a first Golden Globe for her performance as Little Edie Bouvier in Gray Gardens, she has returned to the populous, brain-bashing shoals of romantic comedy. Similar to He's Just Not That Into You, which was based on a bestselling dating guide that seemed to capture the imagination of budding Cathy's everywhere, Going the Distance hopes to skate by on its thin blade of cultural cachet. Having declared fantasy passé, certain rom-com scientists are exploring the lure not of engaging escapism but tame, tranquilizing relatability. It's a concept so edgy my spellchecker is rejecting it. But it's a word, spellchecker. It's also now a selling edge for the same old crappy motion picture.
Hence, my dilemma: I am of Drew-ish vintage; I live in New York, where Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) meet in a bar; I've written for the occasional newspaper, as Erin aspires to; and I've had more long-distance relationships than either I or my imaginary accountant care to remember. In demographic strokes, documentarian-turned-narrative director Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes, American Teen) and first-time writer Geoff LaTulippe couldn't have concocted a better mark if they'd designed me in a lab. They decided to cook up their film in one instead, and the result is a suitably clinical, cynically raunched up wash on a modern dilemma. The disconcerting thing is how easy it is to fool viewers into being satisfied with not being involved, or even entertained -- as long as they can relate. "Even if it sucks," I said to my friend as we settled in, "I've been in so many of these situations -- it will be interesting to see what they do with it."
I now look back at that moment as a more innocent time. The opening finds Garrett flubbing his girlfriend's birthday and being summarily dumped. "I don't even know if you're into this," whines Leighton Meester in a cameo, using a nomenclature that triggered a PTSD flashback to Barrymore and Long's last collaboration. Loins: girded. But I mean my loins gird whenever Long is on screen. How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight is a mystery, as my colleague pointed out in her review of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, we are increasingly asked to accept on screen. Long's fine comic sensibilities and appealing nervous energy seem to have been neutralized by a steady course of protein shakes; an incongruously developed musculature has sprung up in their place. I found myself distracted by the image of him kicking sand in his own face.
But OK, the ladies love him. More plausible is the reflexive affection inspired by Drew Barrymore; as Erin, a 31-year-old intern with dreams of working at a fictional New York newspaper (insert joke here), she's potty-mouthed and spoiling for a fight. Her old standby -- the apple-cheeked beam -- is held largely in check, as are the girly, lispy modulations; several times I started at the sound of her in surly, cut-the-crap mode. It felt as I imagine hearing Michael Jackson speak in his secret low voice might.
Erin's behind on her life, her brittle sister (Christina Applegate, who draws surprisingly comic beats from her clear, oblong gaze) tells her. After a detour that involved dropping out of school and moving across the country to live with a boyfriend, Erin is playing a humiliating form of catch-up. Interning in New York for the summer, she meets Garrett at a bar where she is pouring her frustrations into a game of Centipede and he is having his character explained for us by a pair of beery jesters (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day). Barrymore overdoes the tomboy schtick "cool" girls have been required to do since the late '90s (something about Mary, as I recall): she eats like a pig, drinks like a fish, rules at video games, loves The Shawshank Redemption, and takes monster bong hits. Time to pull out the good stationery and send word to your mother, I guess.
Except that Erin is due back in San Francisco. They embark on a "light, easy" affair anyway (underwritten, per a standard montage, by the New York tourism board; Coney Island and checkered tablecloths figure) and find themselves willing to try to maintain the relationship on separate coasts. Garrett hates his job at a music label promoting corporate pop acts, but the job market is too tight for him to move; Erin's aspirations are obviously doomed. Neither of them can afford to make frequent trips, and by my calculation they see each other twice in seven months. This means there are plenty of scenes with each character's pit crew (Erin's sister; Garrett's friends), who are a big part of Burstein's plan, as she notes in the press materials, "to direct a movie that would feel as real as possible." Except these are a movie-friend mutation -- as yet resistant to antibiotics -- whose claim on authenticity is their unrelenting stream of charmless gutterballs. The look of the film is similarly grubby without being gritty; Burstein reverts to a handheld camera for a couple of the courtship scenes, but the bland aesthetic doesn't budge. Only Drew Barrymore's eye make-up, firing on all four Cover Girl quadrants in every scene, amuses the palate.
Despite building an airtight obstacle -- the length of the entire country -- into the script, the conflict is unsatisfying and its resolution moot. The fact that, in the age of Skype and sexting, the same old phone sex scene is the best they could come up with reveals much. Angst, jealousy and blue balls ensue, with their visits marred by the specter of "figuring out" how they can have a "real relationship." In fact all they ever had seemed to be some dumb things in common and a comfy vibe, though couples have certainly been built on less.
What Burstein does get at, perhaps inadvertently, is the way distance can attenuate the origin myths of young but promising relationships, leaving the couple clinging to the idea of what they could have been instead of what they actually are. That's tenable, for a time and at a distance, but it becomes harder and harder to face each other. What can I say? It's a cheap effect and I may have even parachuted it into the film myself, but for a moment, at least, I could relate.