Like a lot of movies this year and a growing amount in general over the past decade, “Going the Distance” is highly informed by the Internet age. You could argue that this is only a matter of what life is like today. Certainly the movies would want and need to reflect the everyday commonalities of computer and smart phone usage in the real world. Nowadays it’s strange to see a character write a letter or have an answering machine. But not every current movie can be looked at as a commentary on the technological and social consequences of the Internet age and how they have changed situations and lifestyles from how they used to be. Nanette Burstein’s rom-com, a departure from her usual documentary medium (she directed “American Teen” and co-directed Oscar-nominee “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture”), is as surprisingly topical as it is surprisingly crude (and its comedy is very blue).
The main characters, Garrett (Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore), each has or gets a dream job that is a literal fantasy in this day and age. He works for a record label, apparently a small subsidiary of a major, while she’s hired by the San Francisco Chronicle following an internship at the fictional New York Sentinel. I don’t think there are two industries more threatened, if not yet made entirely obsolete, by the Internet than the music and newspaper industries. The careers of the characters is surely no coincidence in this regard. But there is more to this than merely being an only-in-the-movies sort of mirage cinema. Though that would be fine and fitting for a movie that has some of the most romanticized tourist-friendly montages and establishing shots of NYC locales since “Enchanted.” The career fantasy is also necessary for the exploration of how the Internet has altered long-distance relationships for better and worse.
Although there were many long-distance relationships before the Internet explosion, it became more common in the past 15 years thanks to online dating sites, social networks, etc. Shockingly, Garrett and Erin do not meet via Facebook or OkCupid or by any other web-based means. They meet in a bar. Once they’re separated by 2500 miles, though, the Net comes into play in two different ways. First there is the greater ease and comfort to this sort of relationship thanks to cell phones, text messaging, email and video chat. But then there’s the issue with those dream jobs. Because of the scarcity of music biz and newspaper jobs available it’s particularly necessary for Garrett and Erin to hold on to the rare and amazing opportunities they have.
It would be enough of an obstacle in today’s job market for the characters to have trouble trusting that moving cross country for the other person would be worth quitting their jobs for. But plenty of other professions are more plausibly transferable. Not newspaper reporter and band scout. They’re implausible enough as even marginally existent for these lucky individuals. So, in a way, the Internet keeps the couple further apart by harming their respective industries, in spite of how seemingly close it keeps them in the form of communication systems. Meanwhile, for all that’s said about how the world is shrinking thanks to the Internet, “Going the Distance” reminds us through its characters’ desire and frustration how physically it’s just as massive and the space between NYC and San Franciso is no shorter in area (it’s for the best the movie doesn’t show either character using the web during a flight, as is becoming quite the norm).
One additional Internet-related aspect of the comedy, which doesn’t exactly ease or harm the long-distance relationship and which likely isn’t intentionally meant to represent what I view it as, is the lack of privacy the characters experience in different situations. Garrett’s roommate (Charlie Day) can hear him — and Erin when she’s there — through the wall. The guy also uses the bathroom with the door open. He and Garrett’s other friend (Jason Sudeikis) are present on some of the couple’s more intimate dates, like during a boat ride in Central Park. As for the other side of the coin, Erin lives with her sister and seemingly keeps forgetting it’s not her own place in which to have sex on the dining room table. Later she looks at an apartment where a creepy voyeuristic neighbor scares her away. Though none of these situations are of a digital nature, they kind of represent that lack of privacy that comes with the web presence most of us have these days. Friends and family and strangers may not be able to literally hear us in our bedrooms or watch and follow us on our dates, but with the status updates and Twitpics (or later on Flickr) and what not, they can often put the pieces together pretty easily and feel like they’re along with us all the time.
There is probably more that can be said with the movie’s exploration of emotional and physical intimacy with all its dry humping, phone sex, awkward hugs, candid discussions about sex and the odd subplot involving Jason Sudeikis’ goal to bed an old lady holding onto a Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds (i.e. ’80s mustache) fantasy. Also, I didn’t get into the interesting issue of “Going the Distance” being entirely filmed in NYC (Erin’s initial place of employment, supposedly somewhere in the Bay area, is Burstein’s own (well, she’s co-proprietor) Manhattan-based bar & restaurant, The Half King), which to the local makes it seem less of a separation for these characters. If you want to discuss further or have any point to add, drop me a comment.