Sunday, September 5, 2010

Going the Distance: Separation Anxiety

Barrymore and her boytoy are bicoastal lovers in Going the Distance

By Pamela Zoslov

The lengthy running time (102 minutes) of Going the Distance, a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and her current boyfriend, Justin Long, coupled with its wearily predictable ending, allows the viewer ample time to think about the relentless demands of commercial moviemaking. In this case, a gifted documentary filmmaker, Nanette Burstein, whose portraits of young boxers (On the Ropes) and high school students (American Teen) were noteworthy for their emotional realism, is given the difficult task of making something new and different from the formulaic story of a couple separated by miles and trying to make a long-distance relationship work. With first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe, Burstein tries mightily to bring some believability to the story — witty, improvisational-style dialogue, an acknowledgement of the sagging recessionary job market — only to be largely defeated by the necessary clichés of the Hollywood rom-com.

One necessary evil is the casting. Barrymore, never quite as talented or charming as her family legacy implies, looks a bit haggard for the ingénue role she’s playing, and Long has a long way to go before being considered leading-man material. Barrymore and Long, despite being a real-life couple, generate little charisma or erotic heat. Barrymore plays Erin, a clever 31-year-old graduate student who is a superannuated intern for a mythical New York newspaper, the “New York Sentinel.” She meets Garrett (Long), an indie record-company employee freshly dumped by his girlfriend, and they bond over shared interests in circa-1980s music and vintage arcade video games. Their budding romance is narrated with the help of a montage of New York romantic cavorting, in which Burstein resurrects split-screen techniques that hark back to Pillow Talk. Six weeks into this romantic idyll, Erin must return to California to finish school (Stanford, no less), leaving Garrett to his goofy pals Dan (Charlie Day) and Box (Jason Sudeikis) and his unrealistic music-industry job.

Another necessary evil is plot mechanics, which require a labored exposition of the challenges of Erin and Garrett’s separation, handled with frequent phone calls, texts, split-screen guffaws over a sneezing-panda YouTube video, sexual jealousy, comically failed phone sex, and occasional sex-charged reunions. Since the couple are less interesting than the supporting characters — the funny Sudeikis and Day, and lovely Christina Applegate (Married With Children) as Erin’s sister, who’s saddled with the sole unfunny trait of being a hygiene freak — our emotional investment in the couple’s eventual success is limited.

The relationship reaches a crisis point when Erin, attempting the quixotic feat of obtaining a full-time job as a newspaper reporter, receives an offer from a major paper that will keep her on the West Coast, leaving Garrett to sulk petulantly in his dumpy Manhattan apartment and consider seeking solace with a pretty co-worker (Kelli Garner). Burstein and LaTulippe’s efforts to bring realism to the rom-com is again subverted: with one hand the movie acknowledges that newspapers are going the way of the buggy whip, and with the other performs a bit of movie magic as dated as the 1980s-style music of the bands the couple enjoy.

Overlong and meandering, the movie has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Naturalistic scenes reside uncomfortably beside slapstick sequences — Garrett dodging wild spray at a fake-tan salon, Erin and Garrett caught screwing on her sister’s dining-room table. And yet, with all its problems, the movie has an appealing texture. The jokey, sub-Judd Apatow banter, unusually frank sexual dialogue (feisty Erin lamenting the problems of men dawdling while performing oral sex, or screaming “Suck my dick!” drunkenly at an angry biker in a bar), strong supporting cast and general amiability liberate the movie somewhat from its genre-dictated confines.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

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