This movie is genuinely romantic. It is genuinely comedic. It is not horrendously sexist. Writers, directors, producers, aspiring best boys and key grips, take note: Going the Distance is a rare example of rom com done right. For one thing, I laughed. I laughed really hard, which doesn’t often happen when I’m watching a romantic comedy. This movie is damn funny. It passes the Bechdel test. It also more than earns its R-rating – there’s a lot of f-bombs and Drew Barrymore, on more than one occasion, tells someone to suck her dick. And hey, maybe one of these days a black person will get more than a handful of lines and an actual name in a rom com. That being said, this is by far the best romantic comedy of 2010.
Garrett is a band scout living in New York and is, we see as the movie opens, not terribly good at relationships. Erin is a 31-year-old graduate student doing a summer internship at a newspaper, with the dream of becoming a reporter. They meet, go home together and start dating, with the caveat that Erin will be going back to California at the end of the summer. When the time comes for her to leave, they decide to stay together. They talk on the phone, text, email and travel back and forth every few months, but find the distance and the time difference a challenge. Despite Erin’s initial hesitation – she’s already moved her life across the country for a relationship once, and that’s why her “timeline” is all off – she is eager to find a job in New York so that she can move. When Erin’s New York job search goes nowhere, she successfully applies for one in San Francisco and has to choose between taking it and tying herself to the West Coast, or moving to New York, where there are seemingly no jobs, to be with Garrett.
First of all, a hearty congratulations to writer Geoff LaTulippe for giving us a rom com heroine who isn’t a predictable stereotype. Like most real-life women, Erin wants a career – she desperately wants to be a reporter – but unlike most rom com women, she isn’t a cold, socially inept career bitch willing to step over a co-worker’s still-warm body to get it. When she has to choose between a great job in San Francisco and moving to New York, where she’ll have a boyfriend but a tough time finding a job as a reporter, she’s genuinely torn. Because although she wants a career, she’s not consumed by that desire. And although she loves her boyfriend, she’s not sure she’s willing to give up a fantastic job opportunity to be with him. It’s become nearly impossible to find a rom com heroine who takes her work seriously but isn’t portrayed as completely uptight and Machiavellian, so hats off to LaTulippe, director Nanette Burstein and Drew Barrymore for making Erin resemble a real-live human lady with a career.
The realism in Going the Distance is refreshing, and rather endearing. Most romantic comedies give their heroines, regardless of their career status, an endless, impossibly stylish wardrobe and a perfectly decorated apartment. They give us a glossy, sanitized version of the world, one that looks very little like our own lives (which is exactly the point, of course, because rom coms, like women’s magazines, are not about reality, but about aspiration). It’s rare to see, as we do in this movie, a leading lady carrying the same purse in scene after scene, or wearing comfortable shoes instead of tottering around the city in expensive high heels. These are small touches, but they speak to the movie’s ability to avoid some of the genre’s most frustrating pitfalls. Similarly, this is not a movie in which money is no object. There’s a lot of discussion of how much it costs to maintain a relationship between the East and West coasts, and an awareness that those costs can’t be met if you don’t have a job that pays you enough. There’s an acknowledgment that the newspaper business and the music business are “in flux,” and that jobs are disappearing. This isn’t something you often see in the shiny-happy-spendy rom com world that so often ignores the reality that in real life, most people don’t have money to burn (cough, Sex and the City 2), and it makes the movie, and the romantic leads, that much easier to relate to.
Like some of the other movies I’ve reviewed this year, Going the Distance defies some gender stereotypes and confirms others. Garrett spends most of his spare time hanging out with his eccentric roommate Dan, and his cougar-hunting co-worker Box. As with most rom com buddies, these guys are clueless about relationships, but all too happy to offer Garrett advice. When he becomes concerned about his appearance in advance of a rare trip to see Erin – specifically, about his weight – they don’t tease him for being “girly.” On the other hand, they do give him the terrible advice to get a spray-tan, which provides one of the two instances in which the audience sees Justin Long mostly naked. I bring this up because there are no instances in which the audience sees Drew Barrymore naked. That there are two counts of male nudity but zero counts of female nudity in this movie is pretty darn remarkable.
Less remarkable is the cliché of the unhappy married man who longs for single life. In one scene, Garrett and Erin are having dinner with Erin’s sister and brother-in-law and another married couple. When the women leave the table, the men turn on Garrett, accusing him of making them look bad by being so attentive and romantic on the rare occasions when he and Erin are together. “We’re here every day, where the real hell is,” one of them tells Garrett. “It’s not just about showing up for the weekend.” The implication is that Garrett is enjoying all the perks of a serious long-term relationship without putting in the hard-yards of being present every day. Similarly, the woman Garrett is dating at the start of the movie is presented as an impossibly complex creature who, unlike Erin (low-maintenance, likes to play football with the guys) never says what she’s really thinking. Upset that Garrett didn’t get her a birthday present, she yells, “I told you not to get me something so you would want to get me something really great, because I’m the girlfriend who didn’t want anything!” Cut to Garrett’s dumbfounded face: women are crazy!
This movie isn’t perfect – frankly, in a rom com about a long distance relationship, I wanted many more scenes in which characters run through the airport, desperate to reveal their true feelings before it’s too late! – but it is a stand-out. It’s an example of how to make a romantic comedy without resorting to insulting stereotypes, how to get laughs without stooping low. So if you have the time, money and inclination, go show some love for rom com writers and directors who get it right. It’s leaving theaters soon. But that just gives you the opportunity to run to the movie theater, desperate to tell Hollywood how you feel before it’s too late!