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Going the Distance (2010)

by on 2011/02/04

There’s a phobia not listed in my profile, one I rarely think about anymore.  An early scene in Going the Distance reminded me of it, and it gave me hope this movie might prove special to me.

A&R flack Garret is getting to know journalism student Erin on their first date together.  He asks about her favourite movie and expresses profound relief when she doesn’t say Triumph of the Will.  I once felt a similar dread, that I would fall madly in love with someone, only to discover later they were actually a white supremacist.

While Going the Distance is hardly Nazi propaganda, I did feel misled by the end of it.  It sold itself as one thing, yet offered me another.

Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard and Zack and Miri) plays Garret, and Drew Barrymore (Donnie Darko and Whip It) plays Erin.  Both hold forth in tumultuously changing — and possibly dying — industries.  “We do it because we love it,” they say, defending their relationship as much as their employment.

“You’re behind in your life,” Erin’s sister believes, giving voice to their unspoken fear, one now complicated by geography.  Garrett lives and works in New York City, but Erin returns to her San Francisco home after a summer internship ends.  After an initial half hour like Before Sunrise on fast forward, their separation takes its toll, as much on the audience as on the leads.

The plot develops slowly, drawn out, uneven, and wearisome in its transcontinental flip-flopping.  Among other things, I hoped it would stay true to its uniqueness, and not over-stay its welcome.  Both aims could have been accomplished with one simple change:  ending just after Garrett sees Erin’s Centipede score and murmurs wistfully how difficult it would be to succeed her.

Unfortunately its “safe” choices define, and even harm, the movie overall.  It doesn’t “go the distance” conceptually.  It occasionally moves in an unusual, alternative, and interesting direction, but then overshoots it, or veers away altogether.  My desire for a more “summery” (500) Days of Summer were dashed by a lack of discipline.

It’s not as if I went in with unrealistic expectations.  The characters’ preoccupations, their self-aware dialogue, and the supporting cast all foreshadowed an edgier piece.  The players include an embarrassment of talent, including Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jim Gaffigan (Away We Go), Ron Livingston (Office Space), Natalie Morales (the criminally overlooked Middleman), Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), and Jason Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live).  And despite her experience in traditional romantic comedies, even Christina Applegate plays against type as Erin’s disapproving older sister.

These actors add the credibility I initially expected in the smaller details.  Geeky and retro references abound:  Berlin, Lenny Bruce, Centipede, The Cure, The Pretenders, The Shawshank Redemption, Superman, and Garrett’s unusual selection of action figures.

Beyond such set dressing, we are introduced to characters from whom we expect the unexpected.  As in (500) Days, our expectations are inverted:  Erin is the ace gamer, she tries to escape from Garrett’s apartment as soon as she’s had her way with him, and their conversations frequently put those around them off-balance.  Topics include kidnapping, water-boarding, and a meta-level awareness of their mutual discomfort.

The problem is the line between alternative and mainstream has rarely been more blurred, and additional confusion emerges in the inversion of traditional stereotypes.  What was once subcultural is now commonly accepted.  I myself have heard Herbie Hancock, New Order, and Siouxsie and the Banshees played in grocery stores.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised since the Cure and Pretenders tracks used for the soundtrack — “Just Like Heaven” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” — are latter-day cliches in their own right.  The bulk of songs strike a twee “new hipster” vibe, everything sounding like a cross between the Decemberists and Shins.  Hell, the Garden State album even gets mentioned outright.

Any lingering hope I had was gone by the end.  The story became the antithesis of its own pretensions, with a steady increase of romantic comedy conventions.  Dumb “honeymoon” humour — funny only to its participants, and utterly revolting to their audience — piles on heavily.  Especially grating were a slapstick scene in a tanning salon, the leads fawning over the “sneezing panda” viral video, and an oh-so-sweet trail of tea-light candles.

Barf.

Ultimately, Going the Distance becomes the very thing it could have commented on.  It’s like a bad joke, originally made in irony, becoming legitimately offensive with repetition.  Overlong, uneven, and oscillating wildly, its last best hope is a cast of indie ringers.  This effort is not a romantic comedy for geeks.  It’s pabulum for chick flick fans who think they’ve got some edge.

* * *

Rated 14A / R for adult situations and language

102 minutes

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