Long-distance relationships are the center of study in Going the Distance, Warner Bros’ unexpectedly bawdy, often quite funny end-of-summer entry. But the film itself struggles to survive at least as much as its bicoastal pair of leading lovers.
You see, it’s hard out there for a romantic comedy. In the age of big-budget CGI spectacles, plastic-rimmed 3D glasses, and emotional subtlety comparable to a sledgehammer over the head, audiences flock to the theater expecting a full-court press. In the mood for something romantic? Crank up the drama with, say, a forbidden love-affair between humans and mythical beings (some of whom tend to sparkle), or maybe something served with a hefty side of dreary sentimentality—as in any of the multitudinous and seemingly relentless Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Looking for a laugh? You’ll have to leave your discretions at home: virtually nothing is considered off-limits these days. Bubblier products, including the romantic comedy itself, are being drowned out by the oppressive hubbub.
So be it. It is what it is, for better or for worse. In the case of comedy, I’d argue it’s overwhelmingly for the better. The recent trend of complete sincerity coupled with the sincerest vulgarity—owed almost entirely to power-producer Judd Apatow and his kinsmen—has reinvigorated the genre. Even in unaffiliated projects, Apatow’s influence is evident: no-holds humor, candid discourse, desperate attempts to push the boundaries.
But Apatow, whose most personal feats as writer and director include Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Funny People, extends his candor into every aspect of the filmmaking process. He’s not afraid to talk about the grittier side of human existence, and he’s not afraid to portray it either. That’s why his films feel so honest: they sound real, and they look real, too.
Needless to say, Going the Distance is not an Apatow project, but it sure tries its darndest to keep up. And you know what? It doesn’t do such a bad job most of the time. The jokes are actually funny, the situations are actually amusing, and, indeed, the added layer of crassness properly provides a balance of humiliation and hilarity. The film pushes further, even, hoping to distinguish itself with random quirk and spoofy antics.
The problem is that amidst all of this modern wit, the packaging is still hopelessly conventional. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, who make an adorable, charismatic leading duo, are captured with an eager sheen, and a decidedly one-track narrative—they’re together, they’re apart, together, apart, together, etc.—with a single overarching conflict—how will they ever make this work?—keeps the territory familiar and developments unsurprising. So when Barrymore and Long exchange in profanities or attempt to engage in telecommunicated fornication, the results feel more impure than bold or honest. These two precious, delightful people—sullied by a dirty script! Or, who dropped the “f-bomb” in rom-com land?
Still, Going the Distance deserves credit for trying to (pardon) go the distance. The obvious reach for humor in every direction does provide several rounds of laughs, but the story is ultimately too straight and the presentation too pat. In other words, a Judd Apatow film it is not.
Directed by Nanette Burstein. Written by Geoff LaTulippe.
Rated R: Sex (viewed, heard, discussed), Language, Drugs, Naked Bums.
Runtime is 1 hour, 49 minutes.