(by Dustin Putman
Now, here's a welcome respite—a romantic comedy about actual adults dealing with real, relatable problems that neither insults the viewer's intelligence nor creates strained, unnecessary conflicts out of cliches. They talk like people do, uncensored when need be, and director Nanette Burstein (2008's "American Teen") and debuting screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe don't hold back in their frank depictions of sex and relationships. The R rating is deserved and, at least here, it's a happy change of pace from the watered-down fare Hollywood typically shoves down our throats in this genre. A love story about the struggles between likely soul mates who happen to live on opposite sides of the country, "Going the Distance" blossoms all the more due to its exceedingly appealing pairing of stars Drew Barrymore (2009's "Everybody's Fine") and Justin Long (2009's "Drag Me to Hell"), once an actual couple whose comfort and chemistry with each other simply cannot be faked. Article continues below
Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) meet in New York City. She's in town for six weeks to work as a summer journalism intern at the New York Sentinel before heading back to San Francisco to finish her graduate studies at Stanford. He's a lowly associate at a record company where their only interest is in mass-market, teen-targeted junk. In their time together, they hit it off better than either could have expected. Not ready to say good-bye for good, Erin and Garrett make a mutual agreement to stay exclusive to each other as they embark on a long distance relationship. Getting to see each other only once every few months is easier said than done, though, and the stars don't seem destined to align anytime soon when Erin's hopes of getting a permanent newspaper job in Manhattan fall through and Garrett is unsuccessful in finding a place to work in San Francisco.
In too many romantic comedies, one partner is shortchanged, demoted to mere "love interest" status, while the other is the primary protagonist whom the script more closely follows. Just recently, Jennifer Aniston was relegated to an afterthought in "The Switch," the film concentrating almost solely on Jason Bateman's role while not even bothering to capture Aniston's point-of-view. In "Going the Distance," the male/female perspective is portrayed in appreciable equal measure, both characters nicely developed and given the chance to build palpable lives for their characters to live in. Unlike in so many movies, these characters do seem to exist beyond the confines of the screenplay pages. Furthermore, their conversations are not dictated by the plot, but revolve around the sorts of topics people getting to know each other discuss—their favorite movies and albums, whether or not they want kids (joyously, this is not brought up again and never becomes a point of crises or even discussion), their opinions on what true contentment in life consists of.
If it is a great pleasure to listen to this dialogue while becoming involved in an on-screen relationship of substance rather than one reliant on formula, it is also nice to follow the common road blocks, achievements and setbacks that make up Erin's and Garrett's days. Not "movie people" with exorbitant amounts of money, Garrett lives in a smallish NYC apartment he shares with roommate Dan (Charlie Day), while Erin has no choice but to waitress and live with older sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and her family while she finishes up school. Even after getting a job later, the film makes the point that it is a slow but sure process to earn enough money to be able to live on your own, not some instantaneous bout of magic. A lack of extra funds also determines that Erin and Garrett can only fly to see each other a few times a year, and the outrageous flight prices at Christmas mean that they must open each other's presents while seeing each other through their computer screens. Perhaps because director Nanette Burstein comes from a documentary background, she makes certain that no corners are cut in the reality of her narrative. Everything is very much relatable and, even when Garrett's friends Dan and Box (Jason Sudeikis) go a little overboard in their obnoxious behavior, unquestionably believable.
Far from non-stop hilarious but assuredly consistent in its humor, much of it coming from the shrewd writing and the actors' deliveries (their experimentation with phone sex goes wrong from the start when they disagree on their fantasy situation), "Going the Distance" approaches raunchiness but never crosses the line. It is funnier, for example, to know that pubic hair may be lurking on the kitchen table amongst food rather than to actually show someone picking it out of their teeth, and the film is better for recognizing this key distinction. Mostly, though, the tone is more low-key and character-based, not afraid to deliver a zinger now and again and also unafraid of confronting the dramatic urgency of its story.
Drew Barrymore has been one of the reigning queens of modern romantic films for over a decade, and there's a reason why: she's immensely likable (dare I say lovable?) and her personality is infectious. It wouldn't hurt her to stretch her wings more often and delve into more diverse parts, but she does it so well that it's hard to complain. Meanwhile, Justin Long continues to defy expectations or fall into any one box, moving back and forth from comedy to drama and plausibly committing to both. Together, Barrymore's Erin and Long's Garrett are fascinating individuals and an ideal match—more than enough reason to actively care about where they end up for themselves and as a couple. As brash, no-nonsense sister Corinne, Christina Applegate (2008's "The Rocker") is an ace at making the smallest of actions (or even silences) funny, but also gets some delicate dramatic moments where her love and protectiveness of her sister shines through. In another of her signature walk-on roles, scene-stealer Kristen Schaal (2010's "When in Rome") is a hoot as a bartender at the end of her ropes. Schaal desperately needs an entire movie for herself; she is one of the most gifted comic talents to come around in years. Her single scene here is one of the most memorable in the entire picture, and it's all because of her.
With a mood-enhancing use of song, from The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" to, in one priceless punchline, Bill Medley's and Jennifer Warnes' "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," to an oddball reference to 1990s UPN sitcom "Moesha" that actually, against all odds, works, "Going the Distance" isn't interested in being hip or pandering to one demographic, but in finding what is emotionally right for the story and each given scene. For this, the film remains steadfast and reliable for its duration, concluding on a perfect note that finds hope in Erin's and Garrett's future without providing a squeaky-clean, happy-go-lucky, all-troubles-solved solution. No one coming to see "Going the Distance" will be surprised that it leaves them in an upbeat mood, but what is unexpected is how it arrives at this point, pure and true. This might be the most honest and accomplished romantic comedy so far this year.