So when something like “Going the Distance” comes along, it’s not exactly re-inventing the wheel but it’s still a pleasant surprise.
Garrett (Justin Long) is a breezy twenty-something New York A&R guy who is so unbelievably bad at understanding women he doesn’t fully understand how bad he is at it. Which is why, when a chance encounter with wannabe journalist Erin (Drew Barrymore) turns into a romance that he for once actually understands, it really might be his one shot at true love. On some level he seems to realize that as well, so when Erin has to return home to San Francisco he decides, against all logic and experience, to give the long-distance thing the old college try.
First and foremost, “Going the Distance” has good characters. Not so much original or riveting as they are real. And even more importantly, the plot is formed around what the characters think and want, rather than the other way around.
Erin wants to be a journalist in a time when newspapers are dying, so her options for finding work in a city of her choice are small, but she honestly loves and that love never comes across as artificial or set up merely as a plot contrivance. Likewise, Garret is a music guy in an age when the music industry isn’t doing so well, so his options for leaving New York aren’t great, but the draw that keeps him from switching is obvious. More importantly, their jobs aren’t overly glamorized, nor is their living situation, creating a true unity of mis en scene, character and plot. “Going the Distance” isn’t ‘real life’ by any stretch but it puts a good show of it on when it needs to and in the right places.
And it’s funny. Not bowl you over with one perfect gag funny, but serviceable and regularly and very rarely a wrong note. A lot of this is more due to its fine supporting cast, especially fleeting, one scene characters like married couple Ron and Harper (Rob Riggle, Sarah Burns) or Garret’s beleaguered boss (Ron Livingston) who is still lingering under the effects of having to cover Jesus Jones once upon a time.
There are speed bumps along the way for its first time writer and director making her narrative film debut. The best supporting characters are the fleeting ones, the guys who spend more time on screen tend to be somewhat hit and miss, particularly Garrett’s clueless roommate Dan (Charlie Day). Having Charlie listening into Garrett’s hook-up through ultra-thin walls is funny, having him refusing to close the door when he goes to the bathroom isn’t. Christina Applegate as Erin’s cynical sister is one of the few who never wears out her welcome.
There are also some well-worn jokes that should have really been re-thought. We’ve seen every iteration of the spray on tan gag imaginable by now and it’s time to retire it. But every joke that misses, there are four more that land. Any film with a Michael Bay joke and Hitler joke is coming down on the side of funny.
Most importantly, though, the characters are true to themselves throughout and the central dramatic problem works. There are moments of trial and test for each character, but they never veer off into the melodrama a lot of other writers would be tricked by.
And it’s not fluffy, or light. It’s actually quite filthy a lot of the time, and in a good way, only occasionally going overboard into the ridiculous.
Ultimately you care about the characters and their problem even while you’re laughing at them, a problem a lot of comedies can often only get half right. “Going the Distance” actually crosses the finish line. It’s not the comedic highlight of the year but it’s funny and effecting and that’ll do.