Most romantic comedies anger me, because I feel like they’ve betrayed me. I love romantic comedies more than any healthy male should. I can’t explain this love, but I blame Woody Allen and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the saddest and greatest romantic comedy ever made. It angers me that so many romantic comedies—especially over the past decade—put two 30-somethings together and force them to behave like vertiginous teenagers, acting out disturbing pratfall-cluttered psychodramas that would be fine for high schoolers, but for older folks, it speaks to deep-seated personality disorders. I prefer romantic comedies that take relationships and love seriously. They don’t necessarily have to portray the subject in a realistic manner—part of the joy, in many cases, is the optimistic fantasy element—but they should be about adults with adult problems approached in adult ways. Hollywood may want to lure in the teenage audience more than adults, but I hate teenagers, and that hatred extends to movies catering to them.
Going the Distance is refreshingly adults-only, and not just through its regular use of curse words and graphic discussions of sex acts. The film doesn’t even split the difference by utilizing the Judd Apatow Idiot-Manchild (an archetype both teenagers and slovenly males can understand), opting instead to give that role to the buddies played by Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. It’s about two adults struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship, approached with surprising complexity thanks to Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay and Nanette Burstein’s direction.
The film focuses on Garrett (a typically spazzy but frequently funny Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore), who meet in a bar, discover a variety of common interests, have a one-night stand, and then decide to carry it further. Erin is upfront with him: she’s in New York for a summer internship and has to go back to California to finish her graduate studies at Stanford. Garrett’s okay with that—both of them want to relish the few weeks they have together.
Once they’re apart, the typical long-distance problems slowly emerge: the frequency of their phone/online chatting decreases, they start meeting other potential suitors closer to home, they have trouble affording cross-country trips, and so on. Compounding that are buddies Dan and Box (respectively, Day and Sudeikis) encouraging Garrett to play the field while Erin’s obsessive-compulsive sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and overly polite brother-in-law Phil (Jim Gaffigan) try to convince Erin that Garrett doesn’t respect her.
Although I liked the film overall, I’m sort of on the side of Corinne and Phil, a goofy but well-meaning couple who make some good points: the core of the conflict revolves around Garrett’s desire to bring Erin to New York, despite her lack of job prospects (she strives to be a newspaper journalist but unsurprisingly has a tough time breaking into the New York industry), because he’s unwilling to give up a dead-end job he hates. The script subtly acknowledges Garrett’s selfishness without every allowing Garrett to realize it. The film has the happy ending you’d expect, but it doesn’t come as a result of Garrett suddenly growing up and embracing adulthood. Like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, he spends the entire movie as a selfish dolt and only does the right things accidentally.
The film isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. Hollywood product is so starved of decent romantic comedies that Going the Distance feels like the It Happened One Night of the 2010s. It’s not an instant classic, it doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it approaches a believable romantic pairing with appropriate sincerity and respect.
It also proves that a romantic comedy can take the central relationship seriously without relying on sitcom contrivances or what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plot. The few times the film veers toward this territory, the screenplay quickly defuses it, as if LaTulippe is attempting to simultaneously write a good romantic comedy and humorously deconstruct a bad one.
If this seems a little heady and complicated, it’s because I’m getting kind of pretentious. I’m just so glad to see a good romantic comedy, I can’t help myself—but it’s not all deep thoughts and cinephile in-jokes. Going the Distance is a legitimately funny film, aided immensely by its likable leads and a supporting cast filled with ringers.
This film demonstrates the possibilities of the R-rated romantic comedy. So many filmmakers seem willing to rely on gross-out humor simply because they can, but this is not why romantic comedies should be rated R. Adults need to take back their romantic comedies. If a romantic comedy has an R rating, that means they don’t have to cater the story to teenagers to lure them in. Let the teenagers have Twilight and superhero movies (okay, a lot of adults enjoy those, too, but hopefully you see my point).
All in all, I had a good time at Going the Distance. It manages to take a straightforward, somewhat familiar story and make it into something with a lot of heart, humor, and aching believability. That’s disappointingly rare, even in the Age of Apatow. With any luck, more movies like this will start appearing in theatres than Date Night or The Proposal. I want to believe that.