I really wanted to hate Going the Distance. Aside from a few hits like Donnie Darko and ET, Drew Barrymore’s career has been a steady stream of dogshit, and Justin Long’s face makes my brain hurt. Romantic comedies usually stay in the shallow end of both, providing just enough details to let you know you should care if two people get together, and inevitably swivel into the “accidentally-gelled-my-hair-with-jizz” no-man’s-land of lazy humor. The only reason I watched this film is that I played an extra in a New Year’s scene that was apparently left on the cutting-room floor. I had a rough first few months on the job hunt after moving to New York, and needed the work—now there was a slight chance somebody may spot the back of my head across from a big-breasted Russian girl in some mid-Manhattan restaurant. Though I didn’t make it on-screen, the film felt surprisingly fresh, relying more on dialog and relationships than cheap sight gags and uncanny circumstances for its emotional punch. As if that didn’t already put it heads above most entries in the Rom-Com genre, it provides an understated commentary on the current economic crisis the world is facing; its conflict isn’t driven by scorned lovers or absurd personality quirks—it’s fueled by an inability to find work in giant metropolises where jobs should abound.
Erin is a San Franciscan waitress and Journalism grad student interning at the New York Tribune for the Summer. After her article gets shot down by the paper’s editor, she heads out to a bar where she meets Garret, a record producer who just lost his most recent girlfriend and is being forced to promote his label’s “Jonas Brothers” competitor, “XYZ”. The two schmooze over the bar’s ancient Centipede machine, swiftly fall in love, and head back to Garret’s place where their sex is scored to the Top Gun soundtrack by roommate Dan. Eventually Erin’s internship ends and she must leave for San Francisco, throwing the couples’ relationship to the whims of the titular Distance, something which becomes increasingly problematic after the hopeful journalist lands her first professional job at the San Francisco Chronicle, crippling her ability to travel and eliminating any chance of her moving to the Big Apple.
After writing that, the plot actually sounds like generic Rom-Com fodder, and I guess it is. But Erin and Garret’s relationship isn’t where Going the Distance truly shines—it’s the supporting cast that forms the real meat and potatoes of this flick. Christina Applegate’s high-strung mother and sister routine feels balanced by Jim Gaffigan’s dry, deadpan one-liners, and in a rare feat of moviemaking, Garret’s friends behave like actual friends—are jerks who play jokes on one-another and force their buddies into awkward dates with cougar women. Most Romantic Comedies focus on these people—the kind where “wacky hijinks ensue”—but this film leaves them in the background, where they belong. Unfortunately, the final third focuses mostly on Garret and Erin reconciling the distance between each other, which leads to a pretty droll dragging of the film’s feet. Since the romance and comedy elements are almost visibly divided between Erin and Garret’s relationship and their interactions with friends respectively, the film takes on a much more somber tone when the supporting cast disappears. Luckily the relationship happens to serve a larger purpose—effectively acts as a voice in the ongoing cinematic dialectic on unemployment started by films like Up In the Air. The subtlety with which the characters’ inability to find work is approached feels both sobering and alarming—indicates an unspoken resignation to the current economic crisis amongst the American people. If the tanking economy can be handled as a simple part of cinematic life—an immutable fact which nobody can change, so much that it isn’t even outwardly addressed in films like these, then Erin and Garret’s relationship is symbolic of more than two people struggling to love one another; it’s instead a telling example of the crippling affects the current years-long economic downturn has wreaked upon our lives. Financial and job insecurity is no longer impairing our ability to pay debt or live in mansions; it’s preventing people like Erin and Garret from living their lives—from loving one another.