Going the Distance gets a lot of miles from its very likable leads Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. This is a project that Barrymore shepherded along through development; not only is the subject matter timely and the project a bid to be taken seriously as a contemporary film about relationships and communication, but documentary director Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) was hand-picked by Barrymore, and the film co-stars Long, Barrymore’s long-time on-again, off-again real life boyfriend.
And it’s not your standard Hollywood romantic comedy. In addition to the presence of Long as an unlikely but likeable romantic lead, the film’s subject matter has a lot in common with films such as The Break-Up, He’s Not Just That Into You, and (500) Days of Summer. Which is to say that much of the film isn’t even attempting to be disposable Hollywood material, and it’s refreshing how all of the characters are plagued by employment problems, and the choices they make in life are largely affected by that. This isn’t the sort of movie where a character simply goes to pour his heart out to a girl when he realizes he loves her; it has the loftier goal of trying to incorporate the complex choices people have to make in real life that are often controlled and even dictated by the current economic climate. Barrymore’s sister in the film, played by Christina Applegate, is yet another sign of the hard-pressed economic times. She’s constantly franticly cleaning the house and trying to hold things together with her kids. There’s a scene where she’s talking to Barrymore’s Erin via Skype, and the scene in the background with her children is one of mass destruction, and eventually she has to go deal with it and leaves one of her kids in front of the computer for Erin to babysit. Again, this is the kind of scene that just oozes with reality and feels much more honest than the kind of overly simplified, shorthanded scenes we’re used to getting with most Hollywood rom-coms. Every character in Going the Distance is feeling the pressures of the economic climate and doing their best to hold things together and survive, making choices that, while true to themselves, are ultimately also laden with compromise.
This even carries through to the arc of the lead characters’ romance and relationship, and ultimately the resolution of that relationship. And to a certain degree, the film is loaded with the kind of honesty that can sometimes be off-putting to mainstream audiences who don’t want complexity at the multi-plex, but simply want everything served up in user-friendly prepackaging for easy consumption. Yet, what’s disconcerting is that while part of the film really does capture this level of honesty and reality rarely seen, there are also elements and scenes that continue to resort to stale romantic comedy cliches. One particular example of this is the scene where Barrymore and Long rush into the sister’s house late at night and start to have sex on the dinner table without noticing that Jim Gaffigan’s brother-in-law is sitting there eating. The scene actually plays well in the trailer, but taken within the context of the rest of the film, it’s somewhat disingenous and discredits the level of reality that’s been built to that point. As if this weren’t bad enough, we’re then treated to a dinner scene where people keep dropping food on the despoiled table and then eating it, to the horror of Applegate and supposedly the audience. Yet, the cringe factor is much lower than it should be, since the very nature of Applegate’s fastidiousness means that we know that table has been cleaned to a sparkle and there isn’t any offending material on it anyway. But beyond that, it’s a bid to extend an unfunny joke that continues to discredit the film and chip away at previously earned credibility.
Long’s two best friends, played by the hilarious Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, suffer a similar fate. What begins as refreshing honesty and character humor that evolves from this honesty, takes a left turn partway through the film as the writers seemed to have developed too much love for these supporting characters. Sudeikis’ speech about why he sports a 70’s mustache to pick up older women is suspect enough, yet workable; but a later scene in a bar with Sudeikis, Day, and Long all sporting mustaches as part of a pick-up attempt is simply ugly and uncomfortable and should have been left on the cutting room floor. There’s also a bit at the end of the film featuring that damnable dining room table, yet again, that basically kills the otherwise somewhat affecting ending of the film; another thing that should have been left out of the final cut.
So what ends up being a decent romantic comedy with a few glaring flaws and misteps, and very big misteps at that, had the potential to be so much more, and something truly special. It’s a little alarming to consider how and why the filmmakers sabotaged their own film to the degree that they did, especially when the offending elements would have been so easily excised. It’s the equivalent of ordering a really nice dessert at a four star restaurant, something almost exquisite, only to witness the waiter walk over to the table with a can of Cool-Whip in one hand and liberally spray your food. You’re left to look down in horror at what could have been, and then send the whole thing back.