Going the Distance (2010)

Directed by Nanette Burnstein

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Going the Distance is just a well-made romantic comedy that toes the line between genre conventions and self-awareness.  It doesn’t quite dive into all of the rom-com cliches but certainly enough of them so that it can only be looked at through the lens of us knowing all the precise beats and plot points it will hit.  This story tackles the idea of long distance relationships, but pretty quickly the situation becomes unimportant.  It’s just a series of obstacles that threaten the romance that just won’t die.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie when I first saw it.  It’s one of the only straight down the middle rom-coms I’d seen at the time of its release that stuck with me.  I still find it very funny and not in a sarcastic ‘let’s make fun of this silly movie’ kind of way.  That might just be attributed to the Judd Apatow-ian comedy of the banter between the two best friend characters, Dan and Box (Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis) and the Jim Gaffigan-esque sensibilities of Jim Gaffigan’s character.

Beyond a well-executed but traditional A plot, Burnstein did a pretty awesome job of assembling the rest of the talent and working the story to their sensibilities.  There are several jokes delivered by Day or Sudeikis or Gaffigan, Christina Applegate, Rob Riggle, June Diane Raphael and Sarah Burns that fit right into their existing comic personas.  Day feels something like a slightly more intelligent version of his character on It’s Always Sunny and Sudeikis plays a suave oddball that just feels familiar.  Gaffigan plays the same struggling, suburban father that comes through in his standup persona, and Riggle just plays Riggle, like he kind of always does.

Anyways, the movie is perfectly fine, but it’s made much more enjoyable through all of these other performers.  In some ways the romance between the two leads is the most boring part of the movie.  It’s certainly the least original part, as the relationship plays out kind of exactly how you expect, and the chemistry was occasionally evident but mostly just implied.

Those two leads are Erin and Garrett (Drew Barrymore, Justin Long).  Like in every rom-com, they have their thing, usually a job.  Erin is in graduate school for journalism, and Garrett works at a hip record label where he gets to lounge around in a cool office with Jason Sudeikis as his desk partner.  The start of a movie like this is meant to establish the characters and the ways in which their lives need to change, but I often find that they’re already quite accomplished and really cool at the start.  I mean, I’d love to be in Justin Long’s situation, but like in a tv sitcom, we’re not meant to bask in the joy of their large apartments, cool jobs and sweet hangout spots.  But I want to.

They meet at one of those cool hangout spots, a video game bar.  Garrett is somewhat reeling from a recent breakup with a girl he never took seriously.  He dwells on this recent breakup but gets over it quite quickly when he meets Erin.  She is only in New York for one more month before heading back to school at Stanford, out in the San Francisco Bay Area.

They meet, playfully discuss the unlikeliness of the relationship working, and then there’s a montage that shows them falling in love.  At the end of act 1 they decide to try and make the distance work.  Boom, we’re locked in.

They will visit each other, and they’ll express frustration over the challenges of living this far apart.  I suppose the movie accurately accounts for many of these challenges, though the biggest hangup is Garrett’s resistance to leaving New York, even when Erin gets a job at the San Francisco Chronicle.  She is ready to leave the job offer behind and move with him to New York, but Garrett heeds the advice of Erin’s sister (Christina Applegate), and tells her to keep the job.  They break up.

They meet up six months later when Garrett organizes a surprise visit to San Francisco and reveals that he is now the manager of his favorite band and lives in Los Angeles.  They decide they can handle this much shorter long distance relationship.

Living in the Bay Area, it’s always kind of fun to see your ‘city’ represented onscreen.  Even though we never see San Francisco (it was likely all shot on a soundstage and at a house in LA), there’s the implication that Erin can go to school at Stanford in Palo Alto and then commute all the way to San Francisco where she works as a waitress.

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So that’s, at best, 40 minutes without traffic, but you have to imagine she’s dealing with the Bay Area rush hour, so it’s probably closer to 75-90 minutes.  And then you have parking, and– okay, maybe she works at a restaurant in Palo Alto, but I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco.  It doesn’t matter.

I liked this movie.  I’m a fan of Justin Long and Barrymore too, though that’s mostly based off of a childhood obsession with the Barrymore/Jimmy Fallon classic Fever Pitch (2005) which I now realize I haven’t seen in probably 7-8 years…

Going the Distance is perfectly pleasant and occasionally really funny, but in some ways I wanted it to be as ridiculous as a movie like What If, which I also recently watched.  You can either submerge yourself in the genre conventions and embrace the absurdity, finding humor in that overall immersion or you can try to subvert the genre.  The movie that comes to mind right now is David Wain’s They Came Together which somehow does both.  It’s an incredibly ridiculous movie that makes a joke out of carrying out every single rom-com trope and in doing so makes it very clear how self-aware the film is.

Going the Distance is cute and sometimes a little clever.  Most of the humor comes through in what feel like vaguely improvised sequences.  Something silly happens, and the best lines are in the characters’ reactions.  Again, it feels like an Apatow movie, but it’s not quite as good.  The heart of the movie never quite makes it all the way through the film, really because I don’t think there’s any reason to care about the relationship between the two main characters.  Maybe that comes from knowing it’s going to work out, but a lot of the film feels very superficial.  Like in other rom-coms, they have professions that are only defined enough to make them cool or to offer a hint of who they are as people.  It doesn’t matter that Erin wants to be a journalist, only that her profession keeps her away from Garrett and vice versa.  If the film really wanted to emphasize the struggle of maintaining a long distance relationship in the face of career opportunities, we should learn more about each character and understand why their career means so much to them.  Garrett’s job, like Erin’s, feels only vaguely described.  He likes music, cool, now we know he’s a hip dude, but why?  And why does he love The Boxcar Rebellion so much?  They’re okay.

So it’s a nice movie that occasionally feels like it could transcend the genre but ultimately doesn’t.  But that’s okay.

Up Next: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Tree of Life (2011)

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