I often lament the state of romantic comedy in cinema. As evidenced by my reviews of When in Rome, Valentine’s Day and, most recently, The Switch, I feel that these movies are greatly lacking in both romance and comedy. Too often, movie goers are forced to endure formulaic, insincere stories about unlikable people meeting, falling in love, falling out of love, only to fall back in love so that they may live happily ever after. Sprinkled throughout these bland, paint-by-numbers motion pictures are equally lame and unoriginal jokes which rarely inspire genuine laughter. In general, romantic comedies are usually pretty bad.
So, it’s easy to imagine my complete shock, and mild bliss, when a romantic comedy came along that actually made me laugh.
Going the Distance, the narrative debut from Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes, American Teen), explores the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship. Erin and Garrett (Drew Barrymore and Justin Long) meet in a New York bar and start a casual relationship. They intend to keep things light – Erin is only in New York for a summer-long internship and will return to San Francisco in the fall, so a real romance just isn’t in the cards. Of course, the two form a strong connection and decide to stay together, despite the miles between them.
What separates Going the Distance from other films of its kind is Burstein’s ability to avoid many of the clichés that burden the genre. Sure, Erin and Garrett have to go through the same basic beats as every rom-com couple (the on-off-on formula), but rather than splitting them up in the second act through some egregious transgression or easily avoidable misunderstanding (the usual method), she uses literal distance to frame their divide. These character’s don’t break up because of some shallow argument, they are pried apart by their circumstance and they fight their hardest to make things work. It’s not perfect, but at least it’s a little different.
The real-life chemistry between offscreen couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long is apparent in every scene they spend together. The near-instant romance between Erin and Garrett is made exponentially more believable by the actors’ obvious attraction to one another. They interact wonderfully, and there’s a spark between them that, while hard to describe, is instantly recognizable and impossible to fake. Simply put, the film’s romantic elements work where most fail – the characters actually seem to like each other.
As a comedy, Going the Distance is surprisingly effective. Barrymore is naturally likable, as is Long, so getting laughs out of them is easy; put their characters in a few silly situations and the audience will eat it up (even I took the bait on more than a few occasions). They do fine on their own, but the real laughs come courtesy of the spectacular supporting cast. One of my favorite segments features a quick appearance by comedienne Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), in which her character hosts a round of bar trivia – she steals the scene. Christina Applegate (Anchorman) gets some solid screen time and more than a few great lines. The same goes for her bumbling onscreen husband, Jim Gaffigan (My Boys).
No one is funnier, though, than Jason Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live) and Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who play Garrett’s two best friends, Box and Dan. During every moment in which the pair is onscreen, the spotlight moves away from the headlining couple, and shines brightly on their hilarious shenanigans. Burstein smartly uses these characters to break up exposition; whenever the plot gets too formulaic or plot-driven, good old Box and Dan liven things up with perfect absurdism. I wish they had their own movie.