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A geographically challenged relationship is put to the test in “Going the Distance,” a bicoastal comedy with a bit of a bipolar disorder. While mostly free of overt gross-out moments, this uneven effort saddles its likable leads, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, with the kind of verbally exaggerated sexual humor that not only comes off as embarrassingly strained and calculated, but also compromises what the picture genuinely wants to be — a sweet, sincere look at the often-competing priorities of work and romance. Sept. 3 release will rack up some B.O. mileage but lacks the off-the-charts hilarity needed to sustain altitude.

Mere hours after being dumped by his g.f., New York record-label flunky Garrett (Long) manages to score with Erin (Barrymore), a Stanford journalism grad student in the final weeks of her summer internship at something called “the New York Sentinel.” The two hit it off immediately, bonding over beer, bong hits, sex and arcade games; neither one is in a hurry to commit, although it’s clear from their cute dates at Coney Island and cheap Italian restaurants that they’re made for each other.

At barely the half-hour mark, Garrett rushes to catch Erin before she boards her plane back to San Francisco (neatly winking at the romantic-comedy cliche of the climactic race to the airport). They agree to give cross-country romance a try, looking ahead to the prospect of Erin landing a full-time gig in New York and moving there permanently, although Garrett’s loudmouth pals (Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis) and Erin’s overprotective older sister (Christina Applegate) have reservations about the situation.

From that point onward, Geoff LaTulippe’s script shuttles between Gotham and the Bay Area as Garrett and Erin keep in touch daily and even manage to steal a weekend together every few months. But the difficulties of a long-distance love affair soon assert themselves: different time zones, jealousy issues, repressed horniness and the frustrating stasis of their situation, exacerbated by Erin’s trouble finding gainful employment.

“Going the Distance” reps the fiction-feature debut of helmer Nanette Burstein, and it may be her documentary background (“On the Ropes,” “American Teen”) that explains her interest in the refreshingly mundane question of what her characters do (or don’t do) for a living. While the film’s depiction of the news media and the music biz has its share of naive simplifications, it’s likely to strike a minor chord with anyone who has worked in either industry (Matt Servitto is spot-on as Erin’s brusque, battle-weary editor). With its jet-setting leads and topical, working-class concerns, “Going the Distance” at times suggests a lowbrow “Up in the Air” as it pushes Erin toward a fateful decision between a West Coast job (somehow, San Francisco has managed to avoid the slow death of print journalism) and an East Coast boyfriend.

Unfortunately, this poignant development is completely at odds with the film’s prevailing sensibility of in-your-face vulgarity, and it’s here that Burstein displays a first-timer’s clumsiness. Moment by moment, “Going the Distance” isn’t especially funny, which would be fine if it didn’t stoop so low for laughs. While the explicitness is more verbal than visual, it more than earns its R rating by having characters rattle on and on about subjects like masturbation, auto-fellatio and dry humping, for no reason at all. Far from seeming candid or provocative, all this dirty talk feels leering and self-conscious, a sop to mainstream convention; buried inside this foul-mouthed comedy is a leaner, wiser drama trying to fight its way out.

Capably playing a bit younger than their respective ages of 32 and 35, Long and Barrymore neither sizzle nor fizzle onscreen but achieve a pleasant, sparky rapport, his quick wit finding a nice complement in her good-natured spaciness (the actors’ offscreen relationship may serve as an additional selling point for curious viewers).

As the obligatory second bananas, Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), Sudeikis (“Saturday Night Live”) and Applegate are burdened with most of the script’s filthy non sequiturs; it’s hard not to feel they were cast for their comedic credentials, but without any sense of how to channel their talents appropriately. Stabs at humor are further hobbled by awkward pacing and jarring transitions; scenes are often dragged out several beats too long, leaving dead air around the punchlines.

While a montage of Garrett and Erin calling, texting and Skype-ing is technologically up-to-the-minute, the soundtrack choices and pop-culture references (“Top Gun”? “Moesha”?) often feel weirdly dated. New York-lensed production doesn’t deliver a convincing facsimile of San Francisco, although exterior shots of bridges in both cities form a nice visual correlative to the idea of coast-to-coast connection.

Going the Distance

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release of a New Line Cinema presentation of an Offspring Entertainment production. Produced by Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot, Garrett Grant. Executive producers, Dave Neustadter, Richard Brener, Michael Disco. Directed by Nanette Burstein. Screenplay, Geoff LaTulippe.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe color prints, 35mm/HD-to-35mm, widescreen), Eric Steelberg; editor, Peter Teschner; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; art directors, John Kasarda, Peter Rogness; set decorator, David Schlesinger; costume designer, Catherine Marie Thomas; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Michael Barosky; supervising sound editor, Michael Chock; sound designer, Mark Mangini; re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Timothy O. LeBlanc; special effects coordinator, Steve Kirshoff; visual effects supervisor, J. John Corbett; assistant director, Mark Cotone; second unit director, Garrett Grant; second unit camera, Patrick Capone; casting, Kathleen Chopin, Juel Bestrop, Seth Yanklewitz. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Aug. 18, 2010. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.
  • With: Erin - Drew Barrymore Garrett - Justin Long Dan - Charlie Day Box - Jason Sudeikis Corinne - Christina Applegate With: Ron Livingston, Kelli Garner, Rob Riggle, Jim Gaffigan, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Burns, June Diane Raphael, Matt Servitto.