Money’s tight. Jobs are hard to find. Relationships disappoint. Such is the world as we know it. You say recession, I say depression. Let’s call the whole thing off. We go to the movies to forget our troubles, to drown our sorrows, to watch others make sense of this whole sorry mess. Romantic comedy provides a welcome refuge, a few hours in the welcoming darkness where we can rest pretty well assured that no one will die and nothing untoward will befall our hero and heroine, safe in the knowledge that they’ll wind up together at the end no matter how tangled the web of misunderstandings, regardless how high they stack the hurdles. We sit and wait for our happy ending and return again to our little lives at the end, sated and ready for the mundane and the stress life hands us. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long co-star in the latest entry in the genre — Going the Distance. They’re cute together. They’re funny. This should work. Just in case it doesn’t, I pulled a favorite out of a possibly very-stacked Smackdown deck. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time. Money’s tight, and jobs are hard to find. Who do you love?
Drew Barrymore (Erin) is convincingly winning and winsome; we believe she aspires to a (nearly extinct) career in San Francisco print journalism. Justin Long (Garrett) makes a pretty decent match for her, aspiring to another dinosaur occupation in NYC A&R. Few men are as physically attractive as the women in movies (or in life for that matter), denied as they are all the cosmetics and fashion risks the fairer sex employ as a regular part of their arsenal, and Long is no exception to the rule, but he’s got a certain something that makes us pull for him. Could it be the tabloid rumors and vague hints that Barrymore and he are an off-and-on item off-screen as well as on? They seem genuine in their mutual attraction, their goofy devotion. You smoke dope on the first date? I smoke dope on the first date. You play Centipede? I play Centipede. You like Top Gun? I’ve heard of Top Gun. Random and silly stuff but authentic; perhaps it’s not fate but it’ll do in a pinch.
The Defending Champion
Fred Astaire meets Ginger Rogers. Guess what happens next. They fall in love, but the audience knows it well ahead of the players. They woo one another on the dance floor three times, and you’re gonna need a cold shower after the third one. Fred’s a gambler on the loose in the big city to earn a fortune so he can return to marry the girl he left at the altar, and Ginger’s a dance instructor dreaming of making the big(ger) time dancing in a club. Jerome Kern provides the score, the Great Depression provides the stakes, and Astaire and Rogers provide the magic.
Going The Distance falls short of its potential in very frustrating ways; the premise is a solid one, and all the recession period details are as colorful, promising, and accurate as they are rare. These characters exist in real geography, in real work worlds where money is an issue; these folks don’t board planes without first seeking online bargains. They text and phone and scrimp and save; their jobs are less than ideal, and their future prospects realistically — even borderline sadly — limited. It’s not quite the exuberant depression-era cinema of the thirties, but it’s recession romance for sure.
Leighton Meester barely registers as the generic girl who drops Garrett; all the GTD women are adorable and interchangeable. Facial hair means sleazy slacker schemer/ loser in the rom-com universe, and Garrett’s (sloppy) seconds (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day as mustachioed co-worker Box and grungy roommate Dan) prove exactly why this rom-com truism rings so true here. They’re not much more than vulgar foils for the gentle swain at the center of the piece; Box’s subtle and barely expressed longing for a co-worker leads to a muddled night of Dan-debauchery, and yet this little plot point misfires and leads exactly nowhere. They’re humorous wiseguys going nowhere fast, slow, or otherwise; weirdly, even they know it.
Christina Applegate (as Erin’s sister, human bloodhound, and super awkward spirit guide/life coach) and Jim Gaffigan play the dimwit married couple whose house Erin shares for financial reasons; they also serve as terrifying, stultifying suburbanite cautionary tale and subliminal birth control. Their relationship is a horror, and their devil spawn Maya a mostly wordless creep anyone can quiet with a one-word command. At the perfunctory dinner scene from hell, Rob Riggle and June Diane Raphael take the married stereotype to the next level of noxiousness. As a long-married woman, I take particular offense at this odious rom-com tradition; married people are bitter pills, dull and sexless, trapped and judgmental. I’m pretty sure I’m only some of those things.
In most romantic comedies of late, decorum and taste have taken a holiday, probably never to return. They’ve been replaced with a Judd-Apatovian vulgarity that fans will mistake for honesty and hilarity. I’m not so easily fooled. I prefer my onscreen heroes and heroines to do their actual business between the sheets between the shots. If I wanted to watch someone defecating or masturbating or fornicating, I’d probably not choose a public seat in a multiplex to do so. It isn’t romantic, and since I’m not in middle school any more, it’s not terribly humorous either.
I sound like a broken record. A scratched CD. A corrupted MP3 file. There. I’m hip. But I do miss romance and comedy. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long could deliver on both and send me out of the theater walking on air. Romance isn’t dead; it’s simply cowering in a corner covering its eyes and waiting for the new vulgarity to blow over.
Depression era romance did it absolutely right. Plots may have been gossamer thin and silly, but when the leads embraced, it mattered. The stakes weren’t any higher than will they or won’t they…but they weren’t about to hit a bong and pull a one-nighter. They danced cheek to cheek, engaged in rhythmic banter better and hotter than any film sex, they kissed and parted with longing as obstacles pile up around them like luggage in Fibber McGee’s closet. “Swing Time” is one of my favorite Astaire-Rogers outings; it’s a little more grounded than “Top Hat” and some of their other escapist fantasy romances. She’s a scrappy dance instructor, and he gets her fired. (Please ignore the “Bojangles in Harlem” blackface number; it’s pretty excruciating.) Otherwise, the dance numbers are brilliant and much more romantic than watching Barrymore and Long couple in bed or on a dining table. Three duets tell the whole story, “Pick Yourself Up,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” and their final “Never Gonna Dance.”
I like the premise of Going The Distance. Making a long distance love affair work is a challenge I’ve faced several times in my life; my younger daughter struggles with it daily. I wish the screenwriters had dug deeper and avoided the broad strokes comedy and easy conventions and traps. There is a decent indie romance buried alive in this hash of missed opportunities, and I don’t want to beat it to death. It’s no Amélie but it’s light years better than The Ugly Truth and Valentine’s Day. It lands somewhere in the acceptable middle where fans of romantic comedy can turn in desperation.
To get your rom-com light lit for real, crank up the TV, dim the lights, and watch Fred and Ginger do it old-school. Swing Time. Or Top Hat. Or Carefree. Or Shall We Dance. Or Follow the Fleet. Or The Gay Divorcee. You catch my drift.
HE SAID: My wife reviews films for MovieSmackdown.com. Over the past few years she’s seen scores of romantic comedies and, mercifully, she hasn’t dragged me to any of them. Today, however, she was having a tough morning so I volunteered to go with her to see Drew Barrymore’s new film Going The Distance.
I’ve got nothing against romantic comedies. I loved Almost Famous. I thought Amélie was amazing and Say Anything was cool. Whenever Roman Holiday is on TV I check it out. Great film. But this movie was a dud. Not a disaster, just a series of events strung together with likable actors that stumbled their way through an obvious and tired formula. It confirmed my worst thoughts about what is going on in all these movies that are aimed directly at women, the modern Hollywood romantic comedy. There were a few times that I felt for the characters and there were a couple of moderate laughs and a few grins, but mostly I sat there beside my wife looking towards the screen and thinking about what I was going to do when we left the theater. Should I take her to lunch? Should we just go home and check our email? I wonder if my car is going to be really hot when we get into it? How’s that hurricane doing? Nice song for this scene. I wonder how much it cost them to use it?
I must confess, I work in the film business. While getting ready to hand out an Academy Award a few years ago, David Mamet said, “The only thing the audience cares about is… what happens next.” He’s right. An action film doesn’t work if it’s just a bunch of crashes strung together, but put some characters that you care about into it and voilà, movie magic. It’s true of comedies too. The Hangover would be a good example of that. Tremendously funny, but everything followed naturally and I couldn’t wait to see… what happens next. It’s a shame that guys who like action movies and women who like romantic comedies and teenagers who like horror films, etc., all get short-changed by tired formulas without adequate story telling. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and if you are married or in a relationship eventually you are going to have to let your wife or girlfriend drag you to see a movie that is outside your comfort zone. It’s really nice when the film turns out to be as well thought out as The Wedding Singer, and it really sucks when it’s nothing more than recycled ideas placed in a world inhabited by cultural stereotypes. But hey, it’s only a couple of hours and she’ll be happy, so suck it up and go if you want. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. — Patrick McMahon
SHE SAID: I do write about romantic comedies a lot. A. Lot. You’d think that by now I’d lower my expectations, that I’d enter the theater pretty much jaded and knowing I’d be leaving in ninety minutes essentially unchanged and mostly unimpressed. Still, somehow I come into every movie with an open heart and an equally open mind, wanting to be blown away, ready to laugh, primed to be wowed. I figure a fresh slate is the very least I owe the armies of technicians, artists and thieves it takes to make a film, and a critical eye is the very least I owe you, my readers. To that end, I try to avoid other reviews and hype until after I see movies and write my Smackdowns. I hold out the slimmest of hopes that filmmakers will defy stale conventions and spin entirely new tales; at the very least I want to be charmed by attractive, witty people on the screen serving a decent and worthy script, polished and perfected, filled with intelligence, recognizable human behavior, and heart.
Most standard romantic comedy films are tepid affairs, formulaic, listless, calculated little romps falling somewhere in the dreary middle. Nothing much to recommend them and nothing much to condemn. I write about them anyway, honestly and directly. And occasionally I rant. Mostly when a huge opportunity is squandered. Sigh. Once more into the breech. — Sherry Coben