"This would be a lot funnier if she were making out John Hodgman."
What the Critics Got Wrong: Going the Distance
In his review of “Knocked Up,” The New Yorker critic David Denby wrote about the new era of romantic comedies, where interchangeable female straight arrows “offer(s) their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor.” This is a new and strange development in history of the “chick flick.” Just ten to fifteen years ago, female megastars like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan could guarantee huge opening weekends, even if those films weren’t great (think “You’ve Got Mail” and “Notting Hill”).
According to Denby, the glory days of romantic comedy were Hollywood’s Golden Age, when filmmakers “knew that the story would be not only funnier but much more romantic if the fight was waged between equals.” Directors of the 1930s and 40s were trained in the Shakespearian theater, and understood that Benedict needs a woman as barbed as Beatrice, that Petruchio needs Kate precisely because she lashes out at weak-minded fools, that Rosalind makes a man out of Orlando.
This is why Spencer Tracy was hired to “cut (Katherine Hepburn) down to size” in their Golden Age films. Hollywood’s Golden Age comedies often featured girlish women growing up; the fun is watching demure females develop the courage to deploy their wit against arrogant men. Claudette Colbert’s little rich girl in It Happened One Night makes Clark Gable earn her love when trying to settle his gambling debts. In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn meets Cary Grant on that most masculine of turf: the golf course. A strong woman requires a strong man, else society judges her, well, a shrew. More importantly, if her suitors aren’t worthy, why should she care?
The modern Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” et al) romantic comedy is male-centric—in Denby’s words, if Romeo and Mercutio left the Capulet party to practice their swordplay. These movies are about the “dissolution of the male pack,” where humorless career women drag unworthy beta males away from the X-box into adulthood. In these fairy tales, women are pretty but wicked step-mothers striking midnight on male adolescence. In other words, why won’t Paul Rudd’s wife in “Knocked Up” just let him draft his fantasy baseball team in peace?
To be fair to rom-com stalwarts like Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, and Jennifer Aniston, the blame mostly falls on the Hollywood script factory. As Hollywood has narrowed its focus to the adolescent male audience, even its romantic comedies have become like awkward teenage boys: They have no idea what to do with strong, witty, real women.
So what do we make of Drew Barrymore, the granddaughter of John Barrymore, considered by some the greatest stage actor of his generation for his portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III? Often forgotten about John Barrymore is that he sparred with many of Hollywood’s great leading ladies: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (“Grand Hotel”), Katherine Hepburn (“A Bill of Divorcement”), Jean Harlow (“Dinner at Eight”), and Carole Lombard (“Twentieth Century”). Has his granddaughter become the pre-eminent romantic comedy actress of her era?
This is a depressing statement for movie lovers—with no offense meant to Miss Barrymore. Since her much-noted troubled adolescence, Barrymore has become Hollywood’s thankless rom-com workhorse. Got some passable script with a bankable male lead? Call Drew, if you’ve got Hugh Grant, Jimmy Fallon, or Adam Sandler (twice) onboard. Or, in her younger days, if you needed somebody likably cute (“Never Been Kissed,” “Ever After”), Drew was your gal.
Still, can you think of one memorable line that’s come out of Drew Barrymore’s mouth in a romantic comedy? Me neither. Barrymore has misfired in a few “serious” films, but I’ve always sensed that there’s much more to Drew Barrymore than her Hollywood scripts have led us to believe. After all, she did host Saturday Night Live when she was seven and was a teenage alcoholic, yet came out the other side as America’s—well, probably not America’s sweetheart, but something like that. The problem is the quality of female roles her grandfather acted against simply don’t exist today.
Enter “Going the Distance.” I will not argue that “Going the Distance” is “The Philadelphia Story.” But critics (Rotten Tomatometer Rating = 51%) completely missed out on the best romantic comedy of the post-Julia Roberts era—a film that merges the witty R-rated dialogue of the Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow era with the emotional rawness and honesty of early Woody Allen. Denby declared “Knocked Up” this generation’s “The Graduate” back in 2007, but “Going the Distance” better captures the feel of Generation X’s transition from cynical twenty-somethings (think “Reality Bites”) to thirty-something adults in the real world. In short, “Going the Distance” is the rom-com of the Great Recession.
“Going the Distance” follows Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long), two Gen Xers trying to make it in Manhattan. Garrett is a record company talent scout, trying earnestly to discover the next Radiohead when his boss asks him to suck up to “our Jonas Brothers.” Cluelessly, he orders take-out for his girlfriend’s birthday and doesn’t understand that “don’t buy me a present” means “buy me something good, buddy.” She walks out; he walks down to the bar with the boys. A cutie is tearing up the Centipede machine, so Garrett makes a play for the rebound hook-up. Pretty soon, Erin is smearing wing sauce on her face and Garrett is telling stories about childhood tortellini meals. She’s the kind of gal who doesn’t mind if his roommate “DJs the hookup” by throwing on “Take My Breath Away” in the other room. She’s drinking beer, not some stupid wine cooler. Those are for girls.
Denby wrote that Woody Allen turned Manhattan autumns into a romantic dreamscape, like the magical forest “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an imaginary place for romantic fantasies. “Going the Distance” does much the same, but rather than orange leaves fluttering onto cobblestone streets outside row houses, Erin and Garrett hit Coney Island and Central Park, but mostly just hang out at bars and go to theaters. In other words, what Gen Xers saw cool New Yorkers do on tv growing up. When you’re from Someplace, Ohio like Garrett, that’s the dream—especially when you’re spending it with a “cool chick” like Erin. Children of the 80s bond easily because we have a common language (arcade games, “Top Gun,” “SNL” skits), so Erin and Garrett quickly become more like old friends. In a strange land, it’s comforting to know that somebody appreciates your Morgan Freeman impression from “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Turns out Erin is only in New York for the summer, interning for a newspaper and desperately trying to get a job. She’s not in New York to get an Mr.S. degree; she’s repulsed by the idea of marrying a perfect man with a perfect house in the suburbs. Unlike the Baby Boomers, she has no illusions about her life and isn’t interested in keeping up appearances: “I’m 31. I’m an intern! I’m getting wasted.”
To develop the chemistry between Garrett and Erin, first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe and first-time fiction director Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “American Teen”) create the quintessential Gen X relationship: Erin and Garrett look at their own lives as if they’re watching them on tv. TV, of course, is where Gen Xers learned how to act. Look at LaTulippe’s take on the standard rom-com dash-into-the-airport scene. Dread hangs inside Garrett’s car when he takes Erin to the airport; they say nothing except for some small talk about the weather. She gets out, they kinda hug-and-kiss, Garrett goes back to the car. You know the “no parking zone mad sprint to the baggage check” is coming, and there he goes. “I don’t know how this is going to work, you’re going to be there and I’m going to be here, but I’m crazy about you,” he says.
Erin diffuses the moment by breaking down what just happened as if they were sitting on the couch watching “Gossip Girl”: “That was so awful! The kiss thing? With that half-hug—what was that?” This is how Gen Xers talk to each other—meta-conversations in which we break things down as they’re happening. Gen X conversation is a form of proto-tweeting where we put it all out there with an ironic distance. Few characters in recent Hollywood movies have captured this dynamic better than Garrett and Erin. The obligatory long-distance phone sex scene works not just because it’s awkward, but because it emerges from the characters: They can’t give themselves over to the fantasy because they’re too busy breaking it down as they go (“Wait, what were you wearing again? I thought we were in the living room.”) They’d have a more erotic time doing a close read of the “Top Gun” volleyball scene.
In fact, LaTulippe does to the romantic comedy what Gen Xers have had to do to get jobs: Get creative with old formulas. . His heroine, Erin, is a foul-mouthed sparkplug who, not to put too fine a point on it, wants her man to “quit asking and just keep licking.” She drops a megaton of f-bombs. She is unphased by “dry humping.” In short, she sounds like the one chick in your circle of friends who would rather party a little now and worry about getting up for work tomorrow. Her male equivalent Garrett has a deep reserve of cultural trivia from which to draw insults: “Who’s that mustache for? The 1983 Yankees bullpen?”
If you wonder why bar trivia is insanely popular with Gen X urbanites, this is why, and you’re very likely to see women like Erin there. America, this your new sweetheart. It was a nice run, Jennifer Aniston, but you’re too pretty, too professional, too perfect, and now a little too old. Erin shouts trivia answers to the waitress with wing sauce smeared on her face. Unpretentious is in.
Still, “Going the Distance” isn’t just a Apatow-style raunchfest. What elevates this film above every Apatow comedy (including “Knocked Up”) is that, at its core, “Going the Distance” is a drama about the collateral damage wrought by the Great Recession. This is the “honesty” other critics have spoken of, but haven’t given enough credit for. The film’s third act is, true to its Gen X roots, decidedly unromantic—not cynical, in the 90s Ethan Hawke vein, but clear-eyed about the way the world actually works. Where “Friends” never asks how Rachel and Ross can afford that apartment, “Going the Distance” is very upfront about expensive flights and the necessity of free Skype. If the traditional romantic comedy exists in a fantasy world of romantic love, “Going the Distance” is set in a kind of purgatory inside the fantasy worlds of San Francisco and New York. Erin and Garrett simply wait in vain for jobs to appear that will solve their problems.
Thus, what makes the movie “adult” is not its coarse language and situations, but its grappling with tough choices. “Going the Distance,” more than any other romantic comedy of its time, understands the Gen X reality of flexibility and adaptability necessary to survive. Much more than the Baby Boomers, Garrett and Erin understand that “having it all” is the dark side of the American Dream. This isn’t cynical, and perhaps it’s not material for a romantic comedy. But if romantic comedies are, at their heart, about relationships, then “Going the Distance” challenges our notion of what a romantic comedy should be.
This may be why the romantic comedy has virtually died over the past decade: People on dates (twenty and thirty something Gen Xers) simply aren’t buying them. Like Garrett’s job at the record company, the star-driven romantic comedy has been made obsolete by smaller indie labels producing better, more “authentic” works of art (think about how much more entrenched in the Gen X consciousness smaller films like “Lost in Translation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Swingers,” “Garden State,” and “Juno” are, as opposed to any Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon movie). And like Erin’s job search in journalism, the old models don’t apply anymore, and you’ve got to adapt to survive—you’ve got to get creative (As Erin’s boss at the newspaper tells her, “Have you tried blogging?”).
If we accept this premise, “Going the Distance” isn’t just about the dying industries leaving Gen X creative types behind; it’s about another dying industry: the romantic comedy. David Denby might be right about “Knocked Up” as a seminal moment in cinema, but for the wrong reason: It found the outer boundary of possibility for Apatow’s male-pack humor. Until he finds a female character who’s not an emasculating shrew or a benign princess, his movies are going to be about boys breaking up with boys. As fun as they may be together, Rudd and Rogen are no Burton and Taylor.
“Going the Distance” shows us the way forward, if you can see through the smoke emerging from Erin’s bong. It’s not “The Graduate,” but there is a bit of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, riding away from what’s expected of them. I’ve been trying to make sense of the lukewarm critical reception, from “it tries too hard for Kevin Smith dialogue” to the completely lazy and subjective “the leads have no chemistry” to the simple and prudish “it’s potty-mouthed.” The representative review is probably Andrew O’Hehir’s from Salon: “It’s the only romantic comedy to emerge from Hollywood this year that doesn’t feel completely defensive and cynical,” yet:
I strongly suspect the skeptics are right. Of course romantic comedy could come back, and it undoubtedly will. But at the moment it’s a moribund genre, with little appeal to the “Twilight” generation of girls and young women. All a pleasant, offbeat movie like “Going the Distance” can hope to do is swim halfheartedly against the ebbing tide.
So, the problem with “Going the Distance” is that all the other movies of its kind aren’t very good? That’s not a valid criticism. I strongly suspect that many critics can’t bring themselves to praise a romantic comedy in which the lead isn’t a prim and proper vision of loveliness who lifts a lifeless man out of his stupor. We’re no longer conditioned to see romantic comedy females in equal dimension to her male counterpart, or for our chick flicks to try to deal with real problems in a real way. Or for the female leads to get caught in compromising situations on her sister’s dining room table. But, as Gen Xers take Hollywood over from their Boomer forefathers, the romantic comedy heroine will become less polished, less pretentious, less “perfect.” She’ll be just as fun and sassy as her rom-com godmothers (Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, et al), but less refined. In other words, less of a fantasy and more of a woman.
Critics haven’t seemed to figure that out. O’Hehir is right: “Going the Distance” isn’t defensive and cynical, but most of the reviews certainly are. To wit,
Now, am I claiming that “Going the Distance” is a Zeitgeist-capturing yarn of love in our hookup culture, one that may capture the mood of an entire generation? I am not. It has a little of that ambition, which is admirable and all.
Or “Going the Distance” is exactly that, plus the most underrated movie of the year—and critics just missed it. That is admirable and all.
2 Fever Pitch
2 Fever Pitch
2 Lehman Brothers
2 Lehman Brothers
4 Going the Distance
4 Going the Distance
4 Going the Distance
4 Going the Distance