Going the Distance is a light and tasty morsel of a romantic comedy in which two smart, funny, and basically sweet people try to conduct a cross-country relationship. The movie, which sounds like it was spun out of an advice column, is very high-concept, except that it has a gently authentic tone, a flavor rooted in its affection for the shrewd innocence of the 1980s. For the first 15 minutes or so, I actually wondered if it was set in the '80s. Erin (Drew Barrymore), who's 31, is finishing up her internship at a bustling newspaper, The New York Sentinel, and would do anything to land a job there. (I don't know too many 31-year-olds these days who even read newspapers, let alone dream of working at one.) Garrett (Justin Long), an easy-come-easy-go womanizer, works for a medium-size New York record label, and what he does there sounds a lot like being an A&R guy a job that may be even more tied to a bygone era than newspaper reporter.
The two meet at a quiet, homey bar that, miraculously, doesn't have a blaring sports TV, and they proceed to bond over a round of the classic videogame Centipede. That night, back at Garrett's apartment, they confess their mutual passion for Top Gun, and Garrett's roommate (Charlie Day), a scruffy loser who is listening to their every move, blasts the film's immortal Wagnerian-sap power ballad, ''Take My Breath Away,'' as they approach their first kiss. It's funny, in a hot-tub-time-machine sort of way. After two love montages set to the Cure's ''Just Like Heaven'' and the Pretenders' ''Don't Get Me Wrong,'' I began to think: Between this feel-good '80s jukebox and the fact that no one in the film has yet sent a text message, which year is this?
As it turns out, Going the Distance is quite contemporary, but the wistful retro vibe is no accident. The director, Nanette Burstein, is a veteran of documentaries (she made American Teen and codirected The Kid Stays in the Picture), and here, making a major gear shift to mainstream Hollywood comedy, she's out to take us back to an earlier vibe to a time when pop music was optimistic, and so were movie romances. Erin and Garrett don't just fall into glorified lust. They fall in love because they like each other's company, and Barrymore and Long have just the right sort of chemistry; they act out the rhythms of companionship.
Going the Distance is mercifully free of the Styrofoam plot twists that drive most romantic comedies, but it substitutes a development that, by comparison, may seem borderline inconsequential. Erin is set to go to grad school at Stanford, and she and Garrett know they're going to be together only for six weeks. Once she moves to the Bay Area, though, they realize they want to keep it going. And so they have to fly back and forth. And they're frustrated. And horny. And jealous. (Each has a workmate flirt buddy.) Gee, what do you think they should do?
The script, by Geoff LaTulippe, is full of lines that pop. And Long, who's always had a unique and, to me, not entirely appealing way of making floppy-haired boyishness reptilian, comes alive as a movie star for perhaps the first time. He plays Garrett as the kind of guy who uses his wit as an antenna for connectivity. Burstein, as a director, is drawn to the Apatow school of humane obscenity. Going the Distance is filled with raunch a lot of it, delightfully, delivered by Barrymore's Erin (she does a great, original bit about receiving oral sex). But none of it is shock humor. This is comedy that catches the casual dirtiness of how men and women really talk. The blue dialogue liberates Barrymore, who has never been this womanly and confident on screen.
So where's the dramatic conflict? Going the Distance introduces real-world complicating factors that are meant to reflect the stagnant economy. That's why Erin and Garrett can't solve their long-distance problem. This gives the movie a surface topicality, though it also keeps it low-key, episodic, benign, and quaintly everyday. Not that that's such a bad thing. Going the Distance may be a minor movie, but it's also the rare romantic comedy in which you can actually believe what you're seeing. B+