He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) is one of those movies that you watch and tell yourself “This should have been a lot better.” On the other hand, what should you expect from a romantic comedy based on a self-help book of the same name (Greg Behrendt, Liz Tuccillo). Even less promising, the authors of the eponymous book got the title from a line from Sex in the City. It’s not like I didn’t know better. I just happen to like romantic comedies, partly because my wife will pretty dependably watch them with me (the fact that she didn't because she'd seen this one in the theater with our older daughter probably should have been my clue). To be honest, I also wasn’t going to pass up a movie that included both Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson.
The formula for romantic comedies is actually pretty simple. The audience has to fall in love with and root for at least one of the stars. If you manage that, the movie-going public will forgive a wide range of shortcomings in the script. It’s one of the reasons that once you score in one of these things, they’ll never stop casting you in them. Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Drew Barrymore (the creative force behind He’s Just Not That Into You) have built careers on exactly this. On the guy side, Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks have done the same, though Hanks actually makes serious movies too. Drew Barrymore got together a monster cast for He’s Just Not That Into You. In addition to Connelly and Johansson, you get Drew Barrymore herself, Jennifer Anniston, and Ben Affleck. The only problem is that none of these stars do the heavy lifting in the movie. The bulk of the screen time actually goes to Jinnifer Goodwin, Justin Long (Dodge Ball, the Hangover), Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers), and Kevin Connolly (The Notebook). Unfortunately, you just don’t wind up all that charmed by any of the characters, established or not.
Let’s do the math. Jinnifer Goodwin plays a ditz. Justin Long is a jaded bartender. Bradley Cooper is a cheating husband. Kevin Connolly fakes being gay to sell real estate. Scarlett Johansson seduces a married man. Jennifer Anniston spends most of her onscreen time being annoyed because her longtime boyfriend (Affleck) won’t marry her. Jennifer Connelly is a cigarette nazi. Now, there’s a group that I’m really going to sympathize with. And which one of them do you want to make the emotional heart of your movie? Actually, the bigger question is where was the heart in any form?
To me, it looks like they tried to use Crash (best picture 2006) with its interlinked plots tied together by either a single setting or oblique connections to a single event as the blueprint for a romantic comedy. This, of course, has been the vogue, and it’s done quite effectively in movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and The Air I Breathe where the jigsaw puzzle ultimately serves to underscore the mystical connection of all things in a world spinning into incoherence and alienation. Unfortunately, this one didn’t just copy Crash, it crashed. It’s worth mentioning that the mosaic plot was done well long before Crash. It goes back at least as far as Grand Hotel (1932) and was used very effectively in a romantic comedy in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003). The difference being that I still remember how charming Colin Firth was as an awkward writer who falls for his Portugese housekeeper or how poignant Emma Thompson was when she realizes that her husband bought diamonds for his mistress and a Joni Mitchell album for her for Christmas. And no, it didn't help He's Just Not that In to sprinkle in some of those man on the street interview across the movie a la Reds, Harry Met Sally. Does anyone in Hollywood get that a movie is not made to feel original by copying original touches from other peoples' movies?
Sadly, He’s Just Not, simply lacks those kinds of moments. This was Scarlett Johansson’s 47th turn as a sexually-overripe but essentially lonely woman, but I honestly can’t say she’s as good here as she was either in Match Point or Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona. Whatever happened to the little girl from the Horse Whisperer or the confused but chaste young adult in Lost in Tokyo anyway? She’s plenty sexy, but I’m pretty sure she can play other roles. Drew Barrymore gets about three minutes of screen time as the only straight employee of the Baltimore Blade. Half of Anniston’s scenes look like outtakes from when they cut out the serious parts of Wedding Crashers. I think Jennifer Connelly’s a terrific actress, but it strains credibility that she’d be married to a guy who’d want to cheat on her.
What are we left with? There’s a bit about a pen between Goodwin and Justin Long. Minor mechanical note. Connolly and Long’s characters supposedly know one another from childhood, but somehow they never get a scene together. Instead, the various links between the characters are bookmarked then forgotten. All the women work together, Bradley Cooper and Ben Affleck are pals, but nothing really comes of it. Instead, we just get this message “Hey everyone, these miniatures we stuck together, they’re connected somehow!” The one really romantic scene in the movie with Affleck ultimately fails for the simple reason that we just haven’t seen enough of him in the script to care much.
It may come down to this. While the self-help publishing industry may have only recently caught up with the notion of learning to read the signals of mismatched desire, it’s actually been a romantic comedy theme since pre-Jolson. It’s just that no one ever told the producers of this movie that. At one point, they homage John Hughes ( not my favorite director), but it’s like they had no clue how a John Hughes movie or any good romance actually works.
Labels: He's Just Not That Into You Bradley Cooper Jinnifer Goodwin Justin Long Scarlett Johansson Jennifer Connelly