Friday, September 17, 2010

Waiting To Be Charmed: Going The Distance Leaves Me Unimpressed.

The Good: One or two lines, One or two laughs
The Bad: Largely not funny, Terrible chemistry, Stiff acting, Underdeveloped plot, Pacing issues, Predictable.
The Basics: Drew Barrymore and Justin Long star in a romantic comedy that fizzles when they explore a long-term, long-distance relationship.

I like small, independent movies usually. There is a lot to find in this world that has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream and independent cinema is a great place to find it. In fact, one of my favorite movies of all time, The Spitfire Grill (click here for review!) was a limited-released film. I have no inherent bias against small films and I mention this at the outset of my review of Going The Distance because I went into the movie relatively excited about what I was about to see. Unfortunately, it did not take long before I was not only bored, but frustrated with Going The Distance.

Some concepts just do not lend themselves well to a cinematic medium. Movies about long-distance relationships and the agony that comes with being apart from the one you love, now rank high on that list for me. To be fair to writer Nannette Burstein and director Geoff LaTulippe, who created Going The Distance, the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. A romantic comedy about long-distance relationships is tough to pull off. In ninety minutes (Going The Distance barely makes it to the one hundred minute mark, though it frequently feels quite a bit longer than that) the movie has to: establish a relationship that viewers will be interested in, provide the essential conflict, then make the conflict seem real enough to be compelling and different. Going The Distance fails on all fronts, leaving the audience cheated.

Garrett is having a bad night in midsummer when he does not buy his girlfriend, Amy, a gift and she dumps him. Erin, a thirty-one year-old summer intern at the New York Sentinel, is feeling rejected because one of her pieces was torn apart by the newspaper's editor, goes out to the same bar where Garrett and his friends are drowning their sorrows. When Garrett interrupts Erin's game of Centipede, he feels so bad that they have a beer, play a round of bar trivia and go home together for the night. The relationship continues the next morning with the understanding that Erin is returning for her final year of study at Stanford in six weeks and the "relationship" will not endure beyond that time. When the six weeks are up, however, the pair decides to make a go of it with a long-distance relationship.

Over the course of the next year, Garrett and Erin try to make the relationship work, from calls that they can't make one another because of the four hour time difference to surprise visits that have Garrett meeting Erin's family, their relationship is maintained. But the essential conflict comes from Erin's inability to get work in the newspaper business in New York City and Garrett's failure to find any work in the music industry in San Francisco. The longer they are apart, the more they have to wonder if their relationship is worth it.

Unfortunately, for the viewer, the answer is ridiculously simple: it is not. At the half hour point in the movie, the couple is forced to endure their "breakup" as Erin leaves for California and at that point in the movie, I had absolutely no interest in either character. I didn't care if they stayed together, if they split up or anything else and the truth of it is that this is a serious failure of Going The Distance. The inability to invest in the characters whose primary interests seem to be drinking, smoking pot and talking about obscure music groups makes the relationship unimaginably dull.

Add to that that Drew Barrymore and Justin Long have less than no on-screen chemistry in Going The Distance. I've loved both actors in other things, but in this, their performances are stiff, the awkwardness in the way they move around one another is palpable and the movie is so utterly lacking in charm that one has to ask "what is the point?"

The point, of course, is that long-distance relationships are a very real story for many people in the United States and around the world. Telling the story of the strain of a long-term, long-distance relationship is difficult in the visual medium. Friends attempted it when Chandler found work in Oklahoma, but the television series cheated it by including surprise visits between Chandler and Monica for almost that entire story arc. Friends has a luxury that Going The Distance did not have, though, which is that by the time that story arc came up in the popular sitcom, viewers cared about Chandler and Monica and they had a vested interest in how the relationship went - namely years of time spent watching the relationship build and rooting for it.

Going The Distance is almost formulaic in the way it is assembled, with the first third establishing the relationship, the second third exploring mildly the effects of the space between Garrett and Erin and ultimately sinking into a virtually unwatchable series of events that are almost so staged as to be unwatchable - like the inevitable jealousy Garrett has for Erin having a night on the town with a male coworker of hers. At the script level, Going The Distance is a tough sell because the plot points all seem to be just the essential scenes for this style of relationship with most of the agony of a real long-distance relationship glossed over for cinematic expediency. In other words, the movie focuses on the bullet points of establishing the relationship, rushes the first time Garrett makes a trip out to see Erin in San Francisco and then skips ahead so many months to gut the sense of waiting and loneliness the characters feel in the subsequent scenes.

This is not to say that those scenes should have been included, either. The paradox of a movie like Going The Distance is that if the filmmakers are striving for realism, the movie must be almost unwatchably dull because being apart from one you love is long stretches of missing someone which is not cinematically interesting. In the last acts, the film's pacing is so dreadfully slow even with skipping the waiting that had the film gone for more realism, it surely would have sunk even lower. So, the film opts for the bullet point approach and in this way, the movie feels more contrived than in any way spectacular.

What is missing from Going The Distance outside likable characters, great performances and a plot that makes one in any way interested is an iconic scene. When Harry Met Sally had the iconic diner scene, Casablanca had the scene at the airport at the movie's climax, Going The Distance doesn't nail any of them - though it is clear they tried with the talk of masturbation on a New York City street and the table sex scene was actually laugh-out-loud funny. But outside the hilarity of the sex on the table scene, the movie is a long stretch of dull moments punctuated by a choice funny phrase or two (the only one from my notes was "man whore").

Going The Distance also does not seem to know what it wants to be between "guys night out" movie and "chick flick." While most of the serious screentime is given to Justin Long's Garrett and his relationships with his friends and roommate, Erin is given more character notes and ambitions (and Drew Barrymore is top billed). Watching the audience, I noticed many of the women seemed scandalized by the guy talk and language used in Going The Distance while many of the men seemed bored during the scenes that actually favored Garrett and Erin together.

Ultimately, this makes Going The Distance a real disappointment and it is unsurprising that it is out in September, when films that couldn't hold the interest during Summer Blockbuster Season go to die and be forgotten.

For other films involving Drew Barrymore, please check out:
Whip It
Donnie Darko
Batman Forever
Ever After
Charlie's Angels


For other movies, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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