I’ve railed about the state of the art of the studio romantic comedy many times here on the blog. There was a time when “romantic comedy” was a broad descriptor that could be used to define “The Philadelphia Story” or “Bringing Up Baby” or “The Lady Eve.” Those are romantic films, and they are funny. I think there are many good ones in the modern age, but I think as a whole, the genre suffers from the same paucity of imagination and sad circular thinking as the horror genre. Both have enormous potential that is only occasionally tapped.
“Going The Distance” earns both halves of the description, offering up a genuine, well-observed romance that is often very funny and profane. The film is frank in tone, in language, and it’s not afraid to go for a crazy broad joke (Charlie Day’s “open door policy” is pretty great) to undercut a sincere moment. Nanette Burnstein’s background in documentary filmmaking turns out to be a pretty strong asset in terms of creating a very loose and natural mood to her storytelling and her character work, and Geoff LaTulippe’s script deftly avoids the major pitfalls of the genre by just focusing on the little things, the reality of what couples go through when they make the decision to maintain a long-distance relationship. As played by Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, Erin and Garrett are appealing and normal and decent, and you hope for them because they make the right choices, and they try to do the right thing. It’s amazing how something as simple as that can distinguish a film so clearly.
The film’s first act is really careful about laying the groundwork for who Erin is and who Garrett is, and since a film like this ultimately lives or dies based on how much we care about the two people being together, it is important that we see how Erin’s made bad choices in the past that derailed her so she’s getting a late start on everything in her life, and how Garrett is a guy who ice-skates across relationships because he’s never really clicked with someone he was dating and how neither one of them is really looking for anything serious. Once we know them well enough to know what’s at stake, and we see how well their early encounters go, it’s pretty easy to invest in them for the rest of the film.
There’s an early dinner date sequence that looks like it was shot with cameras practically hidden from view, allowing Barrymore and Long to just talk, and since these two have been romantically linked in reality, the casual banter and the give and take between them is unforced, relaxed. You can see how much they enjoy each other, how much they enjoy the engagement. As the film wears on, every time they could make one of those typical romantic comedy choices (someone sleeps with the wrong person in a moment of weakness, someone lies to someone else, someone does something terrible that they try to hide), they don’t. Instead, they just come across as good kids, trying to make good choices, and still suffering regardless. Charlie Day, best known from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and Jason Sudeikis from “Saturday Night Live” play Dan and Box, Garrett’s best friends. They are the source of some of the strangest and dirtiest humor in the film, and it really works. It grounds Garrett and creates a very low-key reality for him to play off of, while Christina Applegate and Jim Gaffigan are excellent as Corrine and Phil, Erin’s sister and brother-in-law who she lives with. Applegate has become reliably deadly in every single comic role she plays, and she’s exactly as good here as she usually is. Gaffigan is a great stand-up who can be hard to cast because he’s not the most ordinary guy, physically speaking. He plays well off of Applegate in every one of their scenes together.
The film deals with the real pain that exists when you can’t be with the person you love, and how long-distance communication can sometimes only underline that sorrow. My family needs to go to Argentina to deal with some things, and my wife is going to be there with my sons for four and a half months starting Monday. The last film we’re going to see together is this one, since I’m taking her out on Friday night, and this is the movie she wants to see. I would imagine the film’s unflinching take on the troubles that come from being apart will spur some tears and, hopefully, some resolutions about how we’re going to deal with things. I know so many people who have to deal with this at some point in their relationships that I think there is something universal and contemporary going on here. This is part of the modern condition, and it’s something that is more common now than ever before, something we really have to consider when we fall in love. Do you really want to invite this much stress into a relationship? And when it’s real love, do you have any choice? We don’t pick who it is we love… and that’s what makes this film’s genuine insight so welcome. Barrymore may lure in the typical rom-com audience, but I think there’s something above-average going on here, and I hope even the skeptical give it a chance this holiday weekend.
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