Romantic comedy is the fruit fly of movie genres, usually so caught up in the myths and mores of the moment that even a few years later, the behavior seems phony. But a good one is the gift that keeps on giving. Success or failure comes down to whether the filmmakers have the perception to recognize the truth of their own era and the honesty to say it.
Going the Distance does both, and it's first-rate. This new movie, with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, recognizes that modern people are pretty coarse, that they're loose, profane and cavalier in ways that previous generations weren't. It also knows that love and intimacy have the same urgency as ever. The film captures the harshness and the sweetness of our time.
We know we're in good hands from the moment Barrymore and Long (as Erin and Garrett) meet in a New York bar. Nothing weird, nothing cute, they just hit it off, the way people sometimes do. From then on, all the formulaic things that we've come to expect, and dread, in a romantic comedy don't happen. The movie doesn't skip over the part where they get to know each other. And there are no fabricated arguments or ridiculous misunderstandings.
You know how in some movies, people become estranged and yet, if they'd only just talk to each other, everything would be OK? Here, they talk to each other, just like people, not like idiots in a romantic comedy.
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They don't need fake problems. They have something real to deal with, which becomes the subject of the story: She's in New York on an internship, and when it ends, she goes back home to the San Francisco Bay Area. From then on, the two are faced with trying to maintain a relationship across a continent.
It's a measure of the success of Going the Distance that by the time the story kicks in, the audience is totally invested in the couple. They're smart, they're funny, they're best friends, they're soul mates. We start feeling their longing.
Along the way, we get a story about love during the recession and the challenges faced by young adults in a miserable economy. Erin and Garrett are talented people who, in their early 30s, really should be launched on their careers, not mired in perpetual occupational adolescence. They should have enough money to fly across the country without wiping out their savings. They should have enough opportunity to pick where they want to live and get a decent job.
The treatment of these issues is seemingly in passing, not heavy-handed. Yet it's no accident that screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe places the lovers in industries particularly damaged by the new economy: journalism and music. She spends her days trying to get hired by newspaper editors who have just laid off 100 people, and he's stuck in a business so depressed that it invests in only the safest, most insipid product.
That a lack of money can be the enemy of love is no new idea. But when you see two people struggling who should have the world before them — and would have had, a generation ago — that old observation lands with new force. But again, no sledgehammer. This element is tossed off, and all you see in the foreground are just two people, talking crudely and feeling deeply, using Skype, having conversations into the early morning, doubting and hoping, and counting the days.
Barrymore's fluid ease with comedy is a marvel, and she and Long have a truthfulness in everything they do. Going the Distance is often quite funny, and Christina Applegate has some particularly inspired moments as Barrymore's frazzled older sister. Director Nanette Burstein, who has worked as a documentarian — she made the splendid high school documentary American Teen — holds the supporting players to a rigorous standard of emotional accuracy. They sell the comedy, never oversell it.
By the way, some of the action takes place inside the city room of a major newspaper. But just for the record, journalists never say, "Hey, that was a really nice Page One story you did today!" At best, they just grunt, "Eh, nice piece" without looking up from their mail.