Going the Distance

Long-distance relationships. Romantic comedies. Love stories starring real-life couples. Things Drew Barrymore does. All of these have a high rate of failure, so the success of “Going the Distance” isn’t just pleasing, it’s almost miraculous.

In director Nanette Burstein’s first fictional film (she made the highly entertaining documentaries “American Teen” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture”), Barrymore and on-again/off-again boyfriend Justin Long play Erin and Garrett, a fairly ordinary, fairly likable young pair who meet one beery evening in a New York pub. Garrett is an entry-level music industry guy in New York; Erin, a journalism grad student at Stanford, is just here for an internship and heads back to California in six weeks. Neither of them wants anything serious.

Wouldn’t you know it, things get serious anyway, and when Erin returns to the West Coast they gingerly try the long-distance-relationship thing. Characters in other movies wouldn’t see a problem here. Why, Garrett can just fly to San Francisco and Erin can fly to New York on alternating weekends! Or one of them can simply drop everything and make a permanent move to the other city! Love is all you need!

Not so. The most eye-opening thing about first-timer Geoff LaTulippe’s charmingly honest screenplay is how it deals with the realities of cross-country romances. Since you are not a movie character, you’re probably well aware of how expensive plane tickets are, and how complicated it is to get time off work regularly, and how there is a three-hour time difference between New York and California, and how this might impact telephone conversations first thing in the morning or late at night.

Erin and Garrett, despite being movie characters, are also aware of these problems. They grapple with them clumsily, humorously, and with a lot of trial and error, as do real people. Their interaction is neither too cute nor too angst-ridden. They aren’t one-dimensional rom-com characters (He’s afraid of commitment! She’s a career-driven shrew!), nor are they overly quirky. They seem, well, normal. Their problems are believable, and they handle them like normal people. When misunderstandings arise, or when half-truths are told, they get worked out. Characters in other movies would be awestruck by this strategy.

You’d be surprised how much difference this makes. Erin and Garrett are so well-established as grounded, real-world characters that it’s easy to overlook the few instances where things do start to get a little wacky and formulaic, a little too movie-ish. Most rom-coms are fairy tales from start to finish; this one shows that you can keep things down-to-earth and still have a completely satisfying resolution.

Oh, and it’s often raucously funny, too, earning its R rating with saucy, smart language that accurately reflects the comportment of today’s 30-ish urbanites. Barrymore and Long are surrounded by a terrific cast that includes Charlie Day (from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, Jim Gaffigan, and Rob Riggle. At every turn there are sharp observations about all stages of relationships. When I wasn’t laughing I was nodding my head in agreement. I think this is how Tyler Perry’s audience feels all the time.

B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some nudity and strong sexuality.)