September 02, 2010 11:19am EST
When the animated opening credits of Warner Bros. Going the Distance begin a barrage of colorful images envelope the screen shaking and shifting to the sounds of contemporary pop-rock like a hipster-chick in a SoHo lounge. It sets the tone for a lighthearted but levelheaded romantic comedy that like the music is cool and crafty but not completely above the clichés of the tried-and-true genre.
Making her feature-film directorial debut Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) set out to make a film that as she put it “would feel as real as possible” – a tough job when taking on a studio comedy. But with a relatable premise a punchy script and a cast that possesses a ton of personality she succeeds at delivering a surprisingly fresh film that chronicles the pros and cons of a long-distance relationship between Justin Long’s Garrett and Drew Barrymore’s Erin.
The first half hour is filled with the standard situational set-ups and character introductions that one expects from any film. We learn everything we need (and want) to know about Garrett and Erin: He’s a New York record label workhorse and she’s an aspiring journalist interning at a metropolitan newspaper. They frequent the same dive bar in downtown Manhattan and have a beer and barbeque-wings fueled fling which turns into a steady summer-long relationship. But all good things must come to an end and as September approaches she prepares to head back to Stanford for another semester much to their mutual dismay. However the feelings between them are sincere and they decide to give their spatially challenged relationship a shot.
Real-life couple Long and Barrymore have a few touching moments throughout the film mostly when the trials of their long-distance relationship take a toll but they are a bore in comparison to the supporting cast. Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day bring frat-house etiquette and bro-mantic charm to the movie as Garrett’s best friends Box and Dan. Together they are the living embodiment of testosterone and man-child — archetypes that have become all-too common in current rom-coms — but with legitimately funny performances they really pay off. Christina Applegate is good for a load of laughs as Erin’s older sister Corinne who is skeptical of Erin’s eagerness to engage in yet another risky romance; she steals the show with her unrelenting commentary.
Going the Distance doesn’t break new ground within the genre or redefine cinematic romance but it balances the sweet and sour moments of its story very well. Burstein minimizes the drama and keeps the comedy raw to maximize the entertainment value of the movie which should please all who purchase a ticket. Somehow the long distance dilemma hasn’t been tackled on film before and that makes the movie appear to be more original that it really is but in a year where so few romantic comedies have brought the goods (The Back-Up Plan Sex and the City 2) Going the Distance does just that.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
High-school misfit Will moves to New Jersey with his single mom and finds himself as socially anonymous at his new school as he was at the last. A music fanatic (he keeps a one-way letter-writing correspondence with David Bowie) Will finds his calling when much to his surprise the school’s hot blonde Charlotte Banks asks him to manage her fledgling garage band. Will accepts the offer taking a group that cranks out uninspired covers of "I Want You to Want Me" and molding it into a high-functioning jamband which he christens “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On.” Thanks to his coaching they're soon skilled enough to take on the high school’s musical hotshots Glory Dogs at the city-wide battle of the bands Bandslam.
All the while Will is falling for the wry deadpan Sa5m (the 5 is silent I don’t know why) and dealing with the social and emotional damage wrought by his no-good absentee father.
WHO'S IN IT?
Gaelan Connell makes a compelling lead as the gangly and sweetly animated Will. Connell is smart funny and endearing like your awkward little brother. Lisa Kudrow fully engages her perfect comedic timing as Will’s kind smothering mother. Aly Michalka plays Charlotte Banks the blonde guitar-playing former cheerleader with heart and Vanessa Hudgens rounds out the crew as the introverted bookish nerd dream girl Sa5m. Rock legend David Bowie plays himself in a cameo.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny and trusts its young target audience to pick up on humor more subtle than what’s usually found in such teen fare. The dead/loser father subplots give the story a serious hook making it a little deeper and more authentically poignant than what’s expected. These twists also give Connell and Banks the opportunity to display their characters’ emotional range and they're up to the task. The way Will sways a surly audience of high school hecklers into a cheering crowd of fans might just bring happy proud mother-style tears to your eyes.
The flick boasts solid musicianship from its cast members and a deep cut-heavy soundtrack featuring artists including Nick Drake Wilco The Velvet Underground & Nico and Bowie himself.
The characters — sweet nerd alluring alterna-girl affected popular chick gaggle of musical dorks — are all cliches but the fine acting humanizes the crew in that relatable Breakfast Club kind of way.
Also at nearly two hours the film is longer than the subject matter requires.
Will and Sa5m’s trip across the bridge to Manhattan is a lovely grainy hand-held camera montage. This young love field trip/perfect first date reaches a high note when the duo breaks into shuttered punk mecca CBGB and Will finds it everything he's dreamed (a scuzzy shrine to his idols) and more (a fine place to romance his Sex Pistols-endeared love interest).
Lisa Kudrow also reminds us why she was our favorite Friend for so long in her neurotic mom role. The scene in which when she pretends to be a young babe on the prowl in order to help Will lure in a drummer to the band is pure comedic parental love.
It’s understandable that the public at large would perceive this flick to be a cheesy High School Musical-style hokefest for the Disney Channel set. Give Bandslam a chance though and it’ll prove itself to be a surprisingly smart little high school comedy that could simultaneously tide the Twilight legion over until New Moon comes out and endear itself to a broader audience wistful for a John Hughes-style junior year coming-of-age story.