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Movie Review

Going the Distance

Romance, raunch reach coast to coast

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 3, 2010

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American movies can always be counted on to get some things wrong about everyday life: brushing teeth, telephones, kissing, but mostly and especially talking about sex. The line is fine between an honest conversation about sex and plain old dirty talk. There are, in fact, so few constructive conversations about procedure, preference, and pleasure that it’s possible to spend a lifetime wondering how a film industry that spends so much time and money in pursuit of sex puts so little of it on screen convincingly.

I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the makers of “Going the Distance’’ aren’t virgins. When Drew Barrymore and Christina Applegate complain about their dissatisfaction with the performance of a certain act, their specificity is both shocking, on the one hand, and perfectly normal, on the other. This is a conversation women have everywhere except in the movies. It’s been known to happen — in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’’ some Spike Lee movies, occasionally when Catherine Keener opens her mouth. But their talk is hilarious here partly because it sounds new.

“Going the Distance’’ earns its R rating, often by daring to say what goes frequently unsaid by women in raunchy comedies. It’s not a very good movie. The entire second half is a sitcom. But unlike similar movies — recent examples include anything starring a man and a woman in pursuit of our laughter — it’s not cynical either. The screenwriter, Geoff LaTulippe, and the director, Nanette Burstein, manage to carve out an energetic, sincere personality for their movie that verges on grown-up. The movie is old enough for Saks or Barneys but still shops at Urban Outfitters.

Barrymore plays Erin, a 31-year-old Stanford grad student interning, somewhat farcically, for the summer at a New York newspaper. One night she goes home with a junior executive at a record label, Garrett (Justin Long), she met at a bar. They get stoned, then spend the night together. Breakfast at a diner in the next scene is fraught with the familiar awkwardness of two participants in a one-night stand thinking about whether they’ve made a mistake. (Isn’t any postcoital breakfast already a kind of triumph?) They spend the rest of the summer dating. When her internship ends, they bravely decide to keep seeing each other from across the country. They do so in defiance of Liz Lemon’s “30 Rock’’ axiom about long distance being the wrong distance.

With them apart, the film begins to rely on clichés. Erin moves in with her overbearing sister (Applegate), who’s married to the sort of pre-middle-aged schlub (Jim Gaffigan) who’s too bitterly betrothed to realize he’s still handsome. Because they’re married, Erin’s sister and brother-in-law have only weird, shameful intimacy that the movie bleeds for a joke at least three times.

Garrett bears his soul to his pals — the not-as-annoying-as-he-should-be Charlie Day and the nifty mustache that’s wearing Jason Sudeikis. They continue a current trend in romantic comedy in which the fretting and doubting and hoping are done by men who confide in buddies. The only difference between Day and Sudeikis and, say, Kim Cattrall and Cynthia Nixon is that the boys’ sweatshirts didn’t cost about $475. (For his part, Long puts away enough of his asexual smugness to disarm you. Still, what does it say that, in my memory, it wasn’t Long who played Garrett but Jimmy Fallon?)

Even with all this talking, Erin and Garrett’s relationship hits snags, namely how the distance is terrible for intercourse. But they keep fighting to make it work, and that fight is one of the reasons to like this movie. It’s unusual in these comedies not to notice a screenwriter trying to force a couple to stay together. Instead, you feel something more natural, two immature people deciding to be adults together.

That Erin and Garrett want to work in changing industries contributes extra layers of relevance, poignancy, and foolishness to the proceedings. (Run for the investment banks, you two!) Burstein has done documentary work with young people, and I can only assume that she wanted a version of the adolescent candor in, say, the manicured nonfiction of her film “American Teen.’’

Barrymore is the other reason to like this movie. She officially no longer looks 16. Her face now has womanly angles, and this recent development complements her innate girlishness. She’s newly, sweetly sexy. During one of Erin’s early dates with Garrett, Barrymore sits outside a restaurant in a black spandex top with pink straps peeking out from underneath. Her hair is scooped up in a willfully messy pile, and there’s a black bow tie around her bare neck. It’s one of the most pleasurable movie images of downtown glamour I can think of — the Playboy bunny by way of American Apparel, flirtatious, young, self-confidently chic.

Barrymore is now working in a grittier gear. Other female movie stars have said suggestive things. When Barrymore does it, it’s fresh in both the vulgar and revelatory senses. Between this movie and her fascinating performance in HBO’s “Grey Gardens,’’ Barrymore, at 35, is becoming a serious comedic actor. Will the movies be able to keep up?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

GOING THE DISTANCE

Directed by: Nanette Burstein

Written by: Geoff LaTulippe

Starring: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and

Christina Applegate

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Harvard Square, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (sexuality

and drug use)

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