Let it never be said that Going The Distance doesn’t play by the romantic-comedy rules: It stars Drew Barrymore, the undisputed queen of the genre, and features such stock elements as a scruffy best friend (two of them, in fact, in Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) on the man’s side, the disapproving sister (Christina Applegate) on the woman’s side, and a maddeningly contrived set of circumstances to keep the couple apart. Yet it’s the rare example of how the old formula can still work, provided that it’s animated by good writing and appealing performances, and that it never actively insults the audience’s intelligence. Going The Distance could stand to color outside the lines a bit more, but it’s perceptive about the problems of young people torn between pursuing love or their nascent career ambitions, and the witty script, by first-timer Geoff LaTulippe, is spiked with refreshing profanity.
By Hollywood rom-com standards, it’s also blessedly low-concept: When they meet in a New York City bar, Barrymore and Justin Long are trying to get footholds in dying industries. She’s an intern for a daily newspaper that’s shedding staff, he’s a low-level A&R guy for a music label. Though Long is still smarting from a failed relationship, Barrymore quickly proves better than a rebound mate, and the two share six banter-filled weeks, nearly falling in love. When a job opportunity takes Barrymore to San Francisco, the pair enters into a long-distance relationship that tests their bond, especially since neither of them can afford to fly out to see the other.
That might all sound weirdly like a situation that would happen in real life, which is one of the areas where Going The Distance deviates from the norm. LaTulippe and director Nanette Burstein (American Teen), a documentary filmmaker making her narrative debut, aren’t interested in reinventing the genre, but they ground it in a plausible situation and let it sink or swim on the strength of the performances and some very funny dialogue. Freed from the timidity of shooting for a PG-13 rating, Day, Sudeikis, Applegate, and a scene-stealing Jim Gaffigan, as Applegate’s defeated husband, are able to cut loose as the obligatory advice-givers, and Barrymore seems more engaged and charming than usual. It all looks so effortless, it’s a wonder that movies like Going The Distance are such an anomaly.