Monday, November 29, 2010

On DVD: "Going the Distance"

Going the Distance is a movie that's wrong in all the big ways and right in all the small ones. Put simply, it's a fucking mess--tonally inconsistent, maddeningly illogical, only fitfully funny. But it can't be dismissed as easily as all that. There's a genuinely interesting picture lurking around its edges, one which occasionally bursts onto the screen and runs around for a while before the requirements of the formula at the movie's center shoves it back under the bed. That movie is worth seeing.

The topic at hand is the long-distance relationship, a situation universal and recognizable enough that it's a little shocking it's not been mined for romantic comedy before. Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) Meet Cute in New York, where he works at an indie record label and she's interning at a newspaper that is clearly the Times, even though it's called the Sentinel. (Later, she's offered a job in San Francisco, where the paper is correctly identified as the Chronicle. Little consistency here?) She's going back to California in six weeks, he's just out of a relationship, so they agree to keep it light--but of course they don't, because then it'd be a 23 minute movie. So they take a crack at the ol' LDR, over the warnings of his friends (Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) and her sister (Christina Applegate), and complications ensue.

The picture gets off to a mighty rocky start; Garrett's break-up (with an underused Leighton Meester) and the subsequent hashing-out-of-issues with his bros (they actually use the phrase "afraid of commitment") are scenes that have been done, done, done to death, the dialogue a mishmash of relationship platitudes and rom-com Mad Libs. (There are flashes of terrible writing throughout: late in the film, when six months have passed, we're told that Barrymore is doing well by having a colleague stiffly announce, "Congratulations on your front page story!") But things certainly perk up when Barrymore slides in--she's never been more welcome or more likable. Good-humored and game, wrapping her gin-soaked voice around some of the filthiest dialogue of her career, she gives the story a credibility boost; simply spoken, you get why he'd fall for her, because who wouldn't? She also gives her co-star a lift (they are, or were, reportedly off-screen lovers as well), which is a relief, since he's a bit of an empty husk without her.

But most of their two-scenes end up coasting on the duo's considerable charm; there are laughs, here and there, but they're mostly locked into the A-B-C progression of the central story. The interesting stuff is happening elsewhere--sometimes, literally through the walls, where Day (from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), as Garrett's buddy and roommate Dan, kibitzes on his dates and, in Barrymore's words, "DJs your hook-up" (his well-timed playing of "Take My Breath Away" during their first kiss becomes the best movie-music joke this side of Blazing Saddles). With his offhand line readings and loopy comic timing, Day basically steals the movie--and does so with barely any effort. I can't imagine anyone, Day included, would argue that he's creating a new character here; this is basically Charlie from Sunny popping into a studio romantic comedy, and subverting it with his casual weirdness.

But that subversion is all over the movie; the "plot" is almost like a chore that everyone has to keep getting around to, like kids eating their vegetables. But I would have rather veered off into an entire movie about Kristen Schaal's skittish, trivia-hosting bartender, or Mike Birbiglia's shambling waiter, who doesn't quite undersell that jug of wine enough. Sudeikis gives his character just the right sheen of sleaze, Jim Gaffigan turns a trip to a sketchy rental apartment into a comic bonanza, and there's not one comedy being made right now that wouldn't benefit from Christina Applegate being in it.

Screenwriter Geoff LaTulipe's approach to sexuality is a lean brew; the frankness and honesty with which it approaches such matters is a little refreshing (and occasionally, more than a little erotic), but they also go, too often, for the easy, lazy laugh. This holds especially true in the final scene, which trots out the film's three sketchiest running jokes, all at once, bang-bang-bang. It's a groaner of a sequence, and an awfully weak note on which to end this decidedly mixed bag of a picture.

Going the Distance has problems galore, but I can't discard it outright--I can't pretend that Day isn't a scream, that Barrymore doesn't charm, that the bit players don't have real juice. There's nothing smooth or steady about it; it feels, in spots, just Scotch-taped together out of bits and pieces and well-worn tropes. But I've thought back on it since viewing it, and I've smiled. So take that for whatever it's worth.
"Going the Distance" hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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