Early in Going the Distance you can tell there's something different going on here. A female character (Drew Barrymore's Erin) is frustrated at work, and rather than crying about it with girlfriends over coffee or ice cream, she hightails it to the bar, downs a few beers, and sets out to beat her own high score on the old-school video game in the back. When she meets new guy Garrett (Justin Long) she doesn't hesitate to join in the trash talk with his friends, and when he takes her home and his roommate proves to be a little weird, Erin rolls with it, allowing their make out to be scored to "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun.
First-time writer Geoff LaTulippe could have written Erin as nothing but a male fantasy of the "cool" girlfriend, but guided by his smart script, directed by Nanette Burstein and played by the timelessly appealing Barrymore, Erin turns into a real, vulnerable, relatable person. The same goes for Long as Garrett, and the rest of the movie for that matter-- Going the Distance is by no means perfect, but it's light years beyond the average rom-com, bracingly honest and genuinely funny about the ups and downs of relationships. Barrymore and Long, once a real-life couple and now who-knows-what, have a real chemistry that complements their well-written, realistic characters, and even when the movie falls apart around them in the third act, we root for these two crazy kids and their shot at romance. They elevate the story beyond its more flawed moments, but really, Going the Distance is pretty special all on its own.
The morning after Garrett and Erin meet in a New York City bar, Erin drops a bomb-- she's moving back to San Francisco in six weeks. Garrett, a womanizer of great skill, is perfectly fine with that, and the two spend the length of a montage enjoying what they think is a fling before realizing they've fallen for each other, hard. Despite the best advice of everyone around them-- an acerbic sister played by Christina Applegate for Erin, two slacker best friends played by Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day for Garrett-- the two give long-distance a shot, trying everything from ludicrously expensive plane tickets to phone sex to make it work.
Going the Distance is at its best when Garrett and Erin are falling in love, as Burstein uses her documentary chops to bring a raw vitality to their only-in-New-York courtship. The director of The Kid Stays In The Picture and American Teen may seem out of place with a rom-com, but maybe thanks to Long and Barrymore's real-life relationship, she has a good eye for the beats and fluctuations of a romance hampered by reality. Erin and Garrett try hard to find jobs in each others cities, but with Erin a budding newspaper reporter and Garrett a record producer, both are stuck in failing industries with no hope of improvement. Burstein and LaTulippe don't lean too hard on the real-life recession parallels, but Garrett and Erin are living in a more realistic world than most rom-com figures, and their frustration at being apart while trying to pursue their dreams rings true, even when the film's more broadly comic moments skew things toward the silly side. .
The movie earns its R-rating primarily through profanity, and though it's not really necessary for Erin to talk frankly about sex with her sister or for Garrett's pals to give crude advice, it adds another level of realism, and also makes for some hilarious awkward humor. Even when the third act falters a bit as it tries to balance the real-life difficulties of a long-distance relationship and the rom-com's instinct toward a happy ending, it has earned your trust with the honesty that came before it; both playing with the tropes of the romantic comedy and rejecting them outright, Going the Distance occupies a happy medium where we don't necessarily really live, but like to think we could. In short, it's better than you're expecting-- do yourself a favor and give it a shot.