Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: "Going the Distance"

"Going the Distance" is this year's "(500) Days of Summer" -- something that superficially resembles a genre film, but is hipper, edgier and about 40 I.Q. points smarter than the average romantic comedy.

Justin Long and Drew Barrymore make for a terrific couple trying to keep a West Coast-East Coast romance alive. Long in particular has developed a really sharp sense of comic timing, and elevates the role just through his quizzical reactions and off-center line deliveries.

But I think it's the creative team that brings a vibe of freshness to a stultifyingly stale genre.

Geoff LaTulippe makes an audacious debut with his original screenplay, and documentarian Nanette Burstein -- she made the wonderful but little-seen "American Teen" a couple years ago -- directs her first narrative film.

The pair behave like a couple of eager kids who don't yet know the romcom rules they're not supposed to break, and deliver a better movie because they fail to acknowledge the boundaries of the familiar boy-meets-girl tale.

For instance, one of the telltale signs of the romantic comedy is the couple's inevitability. Some kind of challenge or set of obstacles is placed in their path, and the entire movie becomes a mechanism to delay that which the audience knows is bound to happen.

In "Going the Distance," we truly don't know if Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Long) will end up together. The barriers in their way are not simple hurdles that can be overcome by the telling of an uncomfortable truth, or some other quick fix. They're deep, life-changing conundrums about how much of your own life you're willing to give up in order to share it with someone else.

Burstein and LaTulippe use the form of the raunchy comedy as a prism through which to glimpse some heavy issues.

And there is plenty of raunch. On Garrett's end, he has a couple of excellent wingmen to lubricate the way with dirty jokes and inappropriate behavior. Dan (Charlie Day) is Garrett's roommate, who's not big on the whole person space thing, and cynical Box (Jason Sudeikis) works with Garrett at a New York record label.

Yeah, the music business ... is there any industry facing such a monumental paradigm shift and soul-crushing downturn? Oh wait, I know: Newspapers! Turns out that's Erin's gig. She's just finishing up a summer internship (at age 31) at the New York Sentinel, where she can barely get anything into print.

(Matt Servitto nails the harried, hectored nonchalance of her editor, having to put off eager beavers like Erin asking about permanent jobs when they're about to lay off a hundred veteran journalists.)

Erin and Garrett hook up for a quick six-week romance, after which she has to go back to San Francisco to wait tables while living with her sister and her family. But things go so well, they decide to give the long-distance relationship thing a try.

Their first, desperate coupling after months of separation happens on the sister's dining table. Christina Applegate is priceless in the role of the fussbudget sibling who scrubs the table all day, and probably would burn it if she could afford to.

The film drags a bit about two-thirds of the way through, but it's possibly unavoidable as Erin and Garrett transition from puppy love to the more troublesome, mature kind that requires sacrifice. They struggle and snipe, and the movie turns sadder but wiser.

There are so many dumb movies out there about falling in love. "Going the Distance" is one smart flick that's not afraid to ask what happens next.

3.5 stars out of four

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