Garrett (Justin Long) has a best friend named Box (Jason Sudeikis). Along with their other best friend, Dan (Charlie Day), they spend a lot of time in a generic New York City bar with a videogame, the kind that keeps track of high scorers. They drink beer, affirm their buddydom, and lament their lack of girlfriends.
It’s a scene you’ve seen in a hundred other romantic comedies. And as Going the Distance begins, it does the plot work it’s supposed to do. Garrett has just been dumped again and again the guys are offering their advice: he needs to commit. Never mind that they’re all pretty boorish and juvenile and no one in her right mind would commit to any one of them. The clean-shaven one with a job (A&R at a small record label that sends him to sign wannabe Jonas-Brothers acts), Garrett is the designated least offensive buddy (i.e., the male romantic lead), so when he heads off to play the videogame, you know exactly what will happen: he’ll meet the female romantic lead.
Enter Erin (Drew Barrymore). She’s an awesome videogame player, a Stanford journalism student in town for a summer internship. This is over in six weeks, she informs Garrett right away, which sets up the rest of the movie. They’ll have great sex and stroll on a boardwalk, they’ll laugh and eat out and play Frisbee in the park in a montage, and then they’ll need to decide whether they’ll commit to a long distance relationship (see: the movie title).
It’s hard to overstate the tedium that unfolds from this premise. They talk on the phone (e.g.: “Long distance fucking sucks,” “I’m so horny”), they leave messages, they Skype. They share the delights of the sneezing baby panda on YouTube and Licensed to Ill, they can quote The Shawshank Redemption. Clearly, they are meant to be. To stretch out the dilemma, they visit one another on occasion, their flights marked in adorable animated maps and their arrivals inevitably kissy-faced and enraptured, until they’re not. On his first journey west, Garrett is so worried about meeting Erin’s family that he heeds his buddies’ advice to correct his “veiny white skin” at a spray tanning salon (the scene is so dauntingly unfunny, you can’t help but miss Long’s “I’m a Mac” days).
In San Francisco, Garrett meets Erin’s version of his best finds (as she too must come equipped with confidants who make her look relatively more bearable). Her sister Corinne (Christina Applegate), married to Phil (Jim Gaffigan), believes that Erin went off track years ago when she moved across country to be with a boy. Now Erin doesn’t have a house or kids (like Corinne) or a real job (as Erin wants, though she concedes the newspaper business may not be the best option right now). Determined that Garrett will not be that boy redux, Corinne warns him not to break her sister’s heart, wielding a barbeque fork and using some of the colorful language that earned the film an R rating.
Corinne’s part in this clumsy concoction indicates what’s wrong with Going the Distance. Plainly inserted as Erin’s sounding board, she’s both raunchy (extolling the virtues of dry humping) and rigid (a character point oddly literalized when she periodically orders her noisy young daughter to become a “Statue!”). There are any number of issues that arise from the sisters’ relationship. First, Barrymore and Applegate are tremendously appealing and able performers, which makes their scenes the film’s most persuasive: it’s not long before you’re wishing the movie was focused on the sisters, and Garrett was the supporting player. Second, this thought leads you to the obvious next one, concerning the increasingly visible constraints of romantic comedies, where women’s primary choice is ever reduced to which man to bed. And third, in turn again, why is Drew Barrymore in this movie?
However Barrymore might have been wanting to support Nanette Burstein’s first fiction feature (she directed the documentary, American Teen) or to earn box office cred with an Apatowish crude comedy, it’s frustrating to see her so reduced. The producer-director-actor knows her way around the movie business, and still, she seems to be scrambling.
Why is her character’s frustration turned into brawly-fall down comedy, when Erin gets drunk and fights with a burly pool player (“Let me tell you something, Steroid Rage!”)? Why is Erin even thinking about putting up with Garrett’s ridiculous buddies—as a sign of her awesomeness? And why is she in a movie where you know what’s going to happen from its first moment? Barrymore is a formidable figure. Flower Films produced Donnie Darko. She directed Whiplash. She played the hell out of Little Edie in 2009’s Grey Gardens. And now, here she is, in a movie where the hero’s best friend’s name is Box.