Is there a genre easier to dismiss than the romantic comedy? I mean, sure, most people are willing to make an exception for older romcoms, the ones they grew up with. Most critics I know will happily defend, say, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night or Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (a personal favorite of my own…). Casual viewers may not always go quite so far back, but movies like Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail or Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally still carry a great deal of influence with a lot of people. But when I ask friends and critics to name a recent romantic comedy they really like, there’s often a lot of struggling, or a tendency to just name a comedy that happens to have a love interest side story (which is all of them. Literally).
Now, part of that is the genre’s fault. It would get just a little mainstream attention and then would promptly drive it into the ground over and over and over again, salting the earth behind it just to make sure nothing could grow there ever again (we call this the Love Actually Effect). But part of it is just that the movie industry is changing. Our best and brightest up-and-coming writers simply… no longer write romantic comedies. They aspire to the wit of Allen or Wilder but don’t care much about the heart. And studios no longer make them – they want the raunchy female buddy comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat) or something they can turn into a franchise. And stars no longer… look, there are a lot of reasons why the romantic comedy is floundering. It is not, however, because there’s nothing left for the genre to say.
Going the Distance director Nanette Burstein was a documentarian (fun fact: a lot of female directors have to get their break through documentaries, as studios don’t want to fund their features. Just kidding – that’s not fun at all!) who got her start in the late 1990s and continued on that path for the next decade. Going the Distance, released in 2010, was her feature debut – and, to date, her only feature film. It was released to largely middling reviews (53% on Rotten Tomatoes, 51 on Metacritic), and it barely made back its already-modest budget. It’s far from perfect. Because of that, it might seem like an odd choice for a column arguing that the genre needs to be taken more seriously than it is right now, but, with hope, I’ll convince you.
In Going the Distance, Garrett (Justin Long) meets Erin (Drew Barrymore) while his friends (Jason Sudeikis & Charlie Day) are treating him to drinks after a bad break-up. The two hit it off, and she goes home with him for a one-night stand. But they wake up together, decide to go get breakfast, and find that they have a genuine connection. Unfortunately, Erin is moving out to San Francisco in just a couple months to live with her sister’s family (Christina Applegate & Jim Gaffigan) while she goes back to college to get the degree she abandoned in her youth to follow a boyfriend. The two decide to stay together and try and make it work at a distance while navigating the difficulty of living so many time zones apart.
I mentioned up top that Burstein was a documentarian for over a decade before directing this, and I think that brings important context to the series: She has a genuine interest in how these characters live. Long-distance relationships are hard. They require an incredible amount of trust, but they also require a huge commitment of time and money, and that’s not something a lot of people can necessarily afford. Most romantic comedies never really dive into the wealth of their leads (who typically seem to reside between ‘upper middle class’ and ‘upper class’), but Burstein makes it central to the story. Neither character makes that much money, but neither character can just… pick up and leave their lives behind, either. Their jobs aren’t perfect and they aren’t where they wanted to be at this point in their lives, but the film also takes seriously the fact that they could grow into what the character wants, and abandoning the job means giving up on that potential future.
Now, the way we interact with any art is obviously at least partially personal. I’ve been in a couple long-distance relationships, and both have fallen apart because of these exact reasons. I worked hard to become a librarian; am I really going to drop all that and go work at Target for a relationship that may not work out? And can I ask my girlfriend to leave her job, which she worked just as hard for, to come to me? Most romantic comedies would say — yes! Love is all you need!
But that’s simply not true. You need to eat. You need shelter. You need to be satisfied with your day-to-day life. You need to feel like you’re contributing to the relationship. Work may not be the only thing, but what you do is still an important part of your life. Going the Distance understands that, and builds a story around it. And sure, that punctures the bubble of fantasy that overlies so many romantic comedies, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The bubble is great when its perfectly executed, creating this enchanting fairy tale vacuum where love really can conquer all – but when it becomes the default, it’s utterly hollow.
Going the Distance didn’t invent economic realism in romantic comedies, of course, and a lot of what it did with its tone would be done in a much bigger way a few years later with Gillian Robespierre’s excellent Obvious Child. Obvious Child made a much bigger splash in part because of its taboo subject matter and in part because it’s a much funnier movie, but for my money, Going the Distance functions better as a romance. But the two films are cut from the same cloth, romantic comedies that replaced high-concept gimmickry and star power with grounded interpersonal relationships and a cast of respected comedians. Going the Distance may lack the high-profile stars needed to help it at the box office, but it gives us Kristen Schaal yelling at Charlie Day, and that’s a trade-off I’ll take any day of the week.
Going the Distance isn’t perfect. I was up front about that. But it is a thoughtful, earnest film that takes the inner lives of its leads seriously and crafts a romance built more on banter and bonding than on beauty and overwhelming chemistry. Long-distance relationships are an essential part of modern life for a great many people, but there are precious few films that tackle it with any sort of honesty or genuine insight. Going the Distance, I’d argue, manages to do just that, and do it well.
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