Quirky Drew Barrymore and dorky Justin Long have dated. For all we know, they might be dating today. Or maybe they'll be dating again tomorrow the two refuse to discuss their relationship in the media. But however mysterious their on-again, off-again coupledom is in real life, their chemistry on-screen in the raunchy but charming Going the Distance is credible, intimate and more appealing than 90% of the romantic pairings in American movies these days.
Barrymore plays Erin, an aspiring journalist, just as she did 11 years ago in Never Been Kissed. While it is true the newspaper industry has been in a brutal downward spiral since then, it seems a stretch to have a 35-year-old actress still playing someone trying to get her break as a reporter. But director Nanette Burstein (American Teen) and screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe are smart enough to address such reservations directly. When we meet her, Erin is a summer intern at the fictional New York Sentinel, dispirited after failing to capture the attention of her distracted, downtrodden editor (the excellent Matt Servitto). "I'm 31," she tells a co-worker, her tone rich with disgust as she heads out of the newsroom. "I'm an intern. I'm going to get wasted."
A woman of her word, Erin goes to a bar, where low-level music producer Garrett (Long) is drowning his own sorrows. Romantic ones, this time: his girlfriend, played by Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester, has just dismissed him on grounds of inadequate present-buying. Garrett is with his pathologically crude roommate Dan (Charlie Day from TV's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, straining to be the next Jonah Hill) and his co-worker Box (Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudeikis). The comic interplay between the three men is of mixed quality. A lot of what they say is funny, but plenty of it flops, and overall, their joint energy is less that of friends than of a team stand-up act performing for a captive audience of one.
But Erin, warm-hearted creature that she is, has no objections to them. She and Garrett meet in front of a video game she exhibits mastery of, share a beer and quickly repair to his place for bong hits and an exchange of ideas like Shawshank Redemption, which they agree is the greatest movie of all time. She laughs heartily when Dan blasts Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" through the wall to set the stage for their tryst. She even tries to sneak out in the morning, offering Garrett the tantalizing prospect of a girl who needs nothing from him. When she has to return to graduate school at Stanford at the end of the summer, there's no guilt trip, just good will and appreciation for what they've had. Goodbye and good luck. She couldn't be cooler.
Moreover, it isn't just the men in the audience who are likely to think so. This may sound like a very backhanded compliment, but it's sincere: Barrymore looks older and rougher than she usually does, which is a good thing. She's pretty, make no mistake, but she also seems very real, like someone who sometimes forgets to brush her hair or put on makeup or, for that matter, get dressed to the nines to go to an internship. Like, you know, a great proportion of actual women. Erin is also bolder and brassier than Barrymore's typical rom-com character (in Music and Lyrics, she was essentially an amiable cream puff). She mouths off, swears and talks frankly and rather hilariously about sex with her older sister Corinne (played expertly by Christina Applegate). When Erin and Garrett decide, after being miserable without each other, to try a bicoastal relationship, Corinne is dubious about their odds. But mostly she's skeptical about Erin's ability to pursue her own goals while in a relationship. Her fear is that Erin will end up taking a waitressing job in New York just to be close to the man she loves. She's just being a good sister; as we've learned, Erin is off track careerwise precisely because she compromised for a man in the past.
For the most part, Barrymore and Long transcend the distraction factor that usually comes into play watching real-life couples on screen. But there's some definite chemistry. A brief shot of Erin and Garrett making love makes you feel like a Peeping Tom; it looks that tender and personal. That scene boosts the notion of Long still known as the Mac guy from the Apple ads, despite prominent roles in Live Free or Die Hard and Dodgeball as a leading man. With his plump lips and squeezable cheeks, Long is not exactly Josh Duhamel; he's cut more from the John Cusack cloth, who thanks to Say Anything, managed to overcome a tiny mouth and anxious eyes to become everyone's favorite boyfriend.
Certainly it helps to have the ever popular Barrymore dragging him along to the pop-culture party (they both also appeared in last year's He's Just Not That Into You, but their characters had separate arcs). In any event, Long's casting makes sense in a movie that offers itself as a retort to other romantic comedies. (There are musical references to Dirty Dancing and Top Gun and a few sly digs at hipster favorites like Garden State.) Instead of driving its plot with stupid misunderstandings or lies ("Sorry, I'm actually just the maid!"), Going the Distance takes seriously the question of what it might mean to be young adults in love, separated by geography and economic reality. For all the raunch, it's sweetly compelling, and like the better Judd Apatow movies is that unusual animal: a romantic comedy that works for both sexes.