Love at first slight
Into the current silly season at the cinema, when moviegoers’ appetite for something light, quick and easy to consume seems to be boundless -- “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” anyone? -- comes a sweet confection of a romantic comedy, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Well, to be more precise, “He’s Just Not” is a sort of anti-romantic romantic comedy; instead of all the weepy, emotional, will-they-ever-get-together scenes, the filmmakers have opted instead to explain why they won’t. The CliffsNotes answer? Because in most cases, he (or she) is just not that into you, a phrase that will be implied many times over the film’s two-plus hours (which sounds like a lot but actually comes down to about seven minutes per star).
Based on Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s popular relationship advice book, the movie begins its story on a playground with a 6-year-old girl being socked in the arm by a 6-year-old boy, with Ginnifer Goodwin, one of the many, many actors in this star-driven ensemble cast, providing the narration. Drying her daughter’s tears, mom explains that the boy hit her because he likes her. Thus the seed is sown -- and from this day forth, for the rest of her life, she is doomed to reinterpret every interaction with any boy she meets. She’ll search for the hidden meaning in everything he says, she’ll pile up excuses like unread issues of the New Yorker to explain away every dating slight.
The “she” is, of course, metaphorically intended to represent all females and not just the urban professional perfect ones who populate this movie. We’re given to understand it’s a universal problem as the question echoes (and the camera pans) around the world from the skyscrapers of Tokyo to thatched huts in Africa and back around to Baltimore, which is where this story is set.
In addition to Goodwin, the film’s cast of thousands includes Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Connelly, Drew Barrymore, who is also an executive producer, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Justin Long and Kevin Connolly in multiple, interlocking, “here’s why what I said either does, or doesn’t, mean what I said” stories. With them in hand, director Ken Kwapis proceeds to walk us gently down that rocky road of love.
Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein have done a good job of using the book -- essentially a “Sex and the City” version of Ann Landers with Behrendt doling out advice -- as foundation, then have gone on to create a raft of actual characters and stories. But they’ve kept all the headlines, building the movie around the big yellow caution signs -- “he’s not calling you,” “he’s sleeping with someone else,” “he’s not marrying you” -- that too often we speed right past.
To ensure that we don’t miss them this time, Kwapis drops in black-and-white title cards throughout the film. Then, in case we blinked and missed those, he cuts to short interviews with “real” people, who recount their experiences on the topic at hand, before the film finally tumbles into the next scene. It sounds goofy, but somehow that device manages to work most of the time, keeping the web of so many plot points from ending up in a tangled mess.
Goodwin’s fresh-faced Gigi and Long’s Alex, her self-appointed relationship guru, become the spine of the film. As Gigi navigates a long string of bad dates -- with Alex reading the tea leaves for her on the side -- all the other set pieces unfold. Beth and Neil (Aniston and Affleck) are the one couple with the great relationship, but no ring because Neil doesn’t believe in marriage. (It’s fitting that Aniston and Affleck play the almost perfect couple -- they look the part but provide little else.) Barrymore is the technology-challenged Mary, who struggles to get beyond the relative isolation of a MySpace/Facebook/voicemail-only romance. Conor (“Entourage’s” Kevin Connolly) finds he actually wants to commit to the one girl who doesn’t want him.
Heart on her sleeve
Some of the scenarios prove to have more meat than others: Janine and Ben (Jennifer Connelly and Bradley Cooper), college sweethearts whose marriage has hit a bump in the form of Johansson’s juicy, free-spirited Anna, make for one of the best, with devastation and desire having its way with each of them. Connelly, whom we’re used to seeing in darker, more dramatic roles, brings that intensity here, giving the comedy an unexpected edge.
Goodwin’s ability to blend innocence and understanding, used so effectively as the youngest wife in HBO’s polygamy drama “Big Love,” is put to good use here -- who else could stare so convincingly at a pink Princess phone willing it to ring? A heart-on-her-sleeve kind of girl, she has a good opposite in the casual cynicism of Long’s character Alex, who has a better wardrobe but otherwise is not unlike Long’s perpetually deadpan Mac guy in Apple ads.
Kwapis has spent a lot of time in the comedy trenches in film and TV, but his best work has been on the small screen (“The Office” and “The Larry Sanders Show” among others). Though he uses the same light hand here -- the look, the pacing and the performances are all bright and breezy -- he has delivered a more grown-up film. Still the result is a bit like a weightless swirl of cotton candy with a mere second of sweetness before it dissolves on your tongue. But then there’s nothing wrong with cotton candy, and besides, the filmmakers never promised more. I guess they’re just not into that.
‘He’s Just Not That Into You’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: In wide release