January 22, 2019

This Week’s Popcorn

‘Going the Distance’ stops short of truly big laughs

2 ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Convivial and often wittily informative about whatever letter generation it is we’re supposed to be concerned with of late, director Nanette Burstein’s “Going the Distance” doesn’t quite live up to its title insofar as creating laughter-causing entertainment. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as the lovers divided by a continent can’t quite save the day.

Their bright, welcoming personages may have stood a better chance of spiriting the film along if Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay could choose between strict farce and somewhat thoughtful comedy. The dilemma is reflected in Miss Barrymore’s face as she seeks a comfortable place to park her Erin, a would-be journalist who has fallen off her life track.

In the Big Apple on an internship with the “New York Sentinel,” the 30-year-old San Franciscan echoes the job market woes of her peers. And now, just to really tear her world asunder, she meets Justin Long’s Garrett, a record biz wonk also crying the career ladder blues. Gosh, they’re such nice, sweet kids. Wish I could offer both of them a job.

Oh well. Falling in love isn’t such bad consolation while you’re waiting for the economy to right itself from the worst downturn since my Great Uncle Moe thought better about leaping from his 30th floor window in ’29. They count the hours until Erin will return to the Left Coast to complete her masters at Stanford. Smart gal.

The day of departure arrives with no grand revelation. That is, except that they are in love. It is thus decided: Against all direly droll admonitions from both camps of friends, they will commit to a long distance relationship. But only the accountants at Verizon are smiling. Garrett resumes his guy routine. Erin returns to her overprotective sister’s house.

A pall is cast over the film. But not only because of the star-crossed circumstances. While both players benefit from some good writing in the wooing stage of the script, the same cannot be said for the ensuing, purgatorial aspect of the story. Though perfunctorily reflective and troubling, its lack of a subtextual counterpoint almost makes it a dirge.

Here, we need either really profound, very funny, or some combination of both. Because once it’s established, bad mood simply isn’t a very entertaining movie mode. Running out of oxygen and wriggling for direction, the tale turns mechanical and longs for the climax. The practically non-existent subplots fail to buoy matters.

Left on stage to appease and ferry us through the movie’s awkward patch, Mr. Long convinces us of Garrett’s basic uprightness. But there’s no real dimension there. Miss Barrymore, on the other hand, takes the challenge with interesting, if not always successful, results. Suddenly, she is 35, and this calls for more than likeable froth.

Happily, the actress brings her movie star quality to the show. After all, she is a Barrymore, and we do so want things to work out for E.T.’s very first friend on Earth. Meshing her natural glibness with an attractively emerging age line here and there, Drew curries our favor. Too bad her chemistry with Mr. Long’s suitor is just so-so.

Occasional comic aid comes from each of the lovers’ seconds. Offering a one-two punch of absurdity from Garrett’s corner are Charlie Day’s squeaky-voiced, weirdo roommate, Dan, and Jason Sudeikis’s Box, an encyclopedic harbinger of relationship-related doom. The two are available for beers, advice and succor whenever there’s trouble in paradise.

Watching Erin’s back with over-the-top, mother hen anxiety and a general disdain for romance in general, is her sister, Corinne, portrayed by Christina Applegate. Controlling and cynical, her powerful sway has husband Phil (Jim Gaffigan) pitifully henpecked. His ineffectuality serves as a humorous warning of what can go wrong if you leap carelessly.

But none of the old wives tales and cautioning bromides about long distance relationships stands a chance against the unfolding amour. At least not initially. Remember, all things are possible with new love, and this winsomely smitten pair is determined to be proof positive that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Yet time takes its toll. Budgetary constraints relegate Erin and Garrett’s longed for intimacy to E-mails and phone calls. While they manage an occasional visit, the all-too brief liaisons prove inherently stressful. And then Erin receives what ordinarily would be great news. An age-old quandary in a new coating, it figures to be a real game changer.

Although it’s all anticlimactic by this point, we cheer on the protagonists anyway. But our fealty is not so much for the suffering sweethearts as for the idea of everlasting love itself. Still, while it isn’t a bad way to spend some time, fully recommending “Going the Distance” would be going a little too far.

“Going the Distance,” rated R, is a Warner Brothers Pictures release directed by Nanette Burstein and stars Drew Barrymore, Justin Long and Christina Applegate. Running time: 102 minutes.

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