Going the Distance is based on a premise that is rich with possibility: a romantic comedy rooted in how the confluence of modern employment mobility and an economic downturn can wreak havoc on love lives, particularly among the young and unsettled.
Drew Barrymore — who has grown more fetching and likable with age (see: Music and Lyrics, Lucky You) — is Erin, a journalism grad student still trying to finesse internships into job offers at 31. She's working at The New York Sentinel on a break from classes back home in San Francisco when her ostensible one-night stand with recently dumped music-industry worker bee Garrett (Justin Long) starts turning into the real relationship neither is seeking.
The pair decide to embark on a long-distance relationship they hope will be temporary, but Erin can't find a writing gig back east, and Garrett's attempts to find a music-industry position on the West Coast turn up empty. With airfare prohibitively pricey, they resort to technology — calls, texts, Skype — to keep their fledgling relationship afloat.
Going the Distance ultimately works through these issues in a pleasantly grounded way, but the getting there is sometimes rough going. Clearly trying to broaden its appeal beyond the so-called "chick flick" demographic, Going the Distance introduces Erin as a gal who plays Centipede, inhales beer, devours hot wings, engages in locker-room-worthy sex talk and — wait for it — loves The Shawshank Redemption. She should bypass rush and hazing and be admitted directly into the frat.
This hard-sell aside, Barrymore's Erin eventually settles into something like a real character, but director Nanette Burstein (American Teen) and debut screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe force her to navigate a film that never feels comfortable with itself.
Burstein mentions Knocked Up and There's Something About Mary as her two biggest influences in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, and even without that confirmation it's easy to see what she's going for here. But, as T.S. Eliot taught us, there's a daunting shadow separating concept and creation. And so Going the Distance is an otherwise sincere and often serious romantic comedy that is needlessly stuffed with groan-worthy gross-out gags and awkwardly raunchy sexual humor.
For example: When Garrett surprises Erin at her waitress job after a cross-country flight and makes flirtatious reference to a "tip," Erin's cringe-inducing response is to squeal, "Is it the tip of your penis?"
And there's nothing in Knocked Up as cheap as the great lengths Going the Distance goes to set up a tiresome sight gag about dry-humping, which it uses to close the movie in a manner that seems dismissive of the relationship story the film has been telling.
In Knocked Up, the frat-house humor felt like a natural outgrowth of the characters and also felt like the subject of an affectionate but still pained critique. Here, obnoxious bits like a three-way roommate conversation staged with one guy taking a dump, bathroom door wide open, are instead artificial and desperate. Christina Applegate's mortified reaction shots as Erin's concerned older sister almost redeem some of this material, but it isn't enough.
Going the Distance could have been a real sleeper, but it just doesn't have enough faith in its own best qualities.