Interesting provenance for a project: the concept of He's Just Not That Into You came from a line in a 30-minute Sex and the City episode, which was then turned into a thin but nonetheless bestselling self-help book of the same title by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. So should it be a huge surprise that the resulting movie (directed by Ken Kwapis, screenplay by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) isn't exactly Citizen Kane?
From the largely negative reviews and the outraged on-line outcry that's greeted this innocuous, essentially lightweight picture, you'd have thought the romantic comedy Anti-Christ had arrived. Accordingly, I showed up at my local multiplex prepared to see something car wreck-level horrible. Well, there's nothing like having low-to-no expectations. I went, I watched, and I've lived to tell: It's not awful.
HJNTIY belongs to that most difficult to get right of rom-com sub-genres, the ensemble film. These kinds of movies, with Richard Curtis's Love Actually being perhaps the most successful in recent memory, put a number of disparate couples through their romantic comedy paces, and are usually loosely organized around a theme, however substantial or wispy (see Actually's fairly fatuous "love is all around you" motif).
HJNTIY's thematic concerns are so ephemeral as to barely bear examination. There's a stab at organization in there, reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally's imitation of the Woody Allen oeuvre, where the title's self-help theme is sounded in a title card (e.g. "...if he's not calling you,"), followed by a faux "real person" interview on the topic. And certainly the spine of the thing is embodied in the story line featuring Ginnifer Goodwin and Justin Long: Goodwin is the girl who needs to be taught the meaning of the title's lesson.
As to the grab-bag of story lines surrounding hers, the ultimate meaning of it all is pretty damn fuzzy. There's something in here, as the various couples do or don't work through their various romantic issues, about women needing to shed their illusions on the one hand, and stand up for themselves on the other, but it's tough to sort out. That's mainly because despite the many winning actors on display here, there really aren't any characters.
It's like a romantic comedy video game, or more properly, a board game: pick a card from the Conflicts pile, roll the dice, and see where you land. The players themselves are largely incidental. Thus Scarlett Johansson is a confused and confusing construct: she's the girl who's sort of with, but not with Entourage's Kevin Connolly (himself likable but so insubstantial that he threatens to float right off the screen), and intent on sleeping with married man Bradley Cooper. Why? Because the plot demands it; who Johansson is, beyond some loose idea of a narcissicist, is never clear.
The same superficiality afflicts all the couplings on screen, which are lazily sketched in sitcom gloss. Every now and then, sheer sentimentality pulls some emotions to the surface; you'd have to be romantic comedy immune to not feel the tug when Ben Affleck proves he's there for Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Connolly brings a welcome edge and heft to her turn as a betrayed wife, given the slimness of the stereotypical role. But speaking of stereotypes...
The aforementioned on-line tumult arose -- rightfully, to a large degree -- from both the black and the gay community's reaction to HJNTIY's offensive tone-deafness. For a movie set in Baltimore, with its prominent black community, it really is absurd that there's no couple of color in the film. Black characters are consistently relegated to background, and the most prominent one, given only a few lines, is a waiter.
The homosexual men depicted in the movie are wince-worthy, cliché gay.
Where is it written that a romantic comedy has to be politically correct? Nowhere, of course, and if one accepts the notion that all the film's central characters travel in roughly the same social circle, one could rationalize the color-blindness of the group (one could, that is, if the insular, upper-class white nature of the HJNTIY cast were at least acknowledged). But it's inarguable that HJNTIY represents a missed opportunity. Imagine if the creative team behind it had tried to stretch the long-established boundaries of the genre, instead of dutifully playing connect-the-formulaic-dots.
Meanwhile, as we carp and bloviate, the evidently critic-proof pic has captured its opening weekend, with a stellar $27.5 mil take. And it was instructive to see the movie with a full house. I realized, gauging the tenor and volume of the laughter, that what's getting HJNTIY over is its pop cultural conviviality. In its best moments, not unlike a good Sex and the City episode (minus the truly sharp wit), the movie is speaking its contemporary urban audience's language.
Thus a largely wasted Drew Barrymore got one of the movie's biggest laughs when her character decried a technology where you have to go through seven different portals to receive the same rejection you used to get from one home answering machine. And the script's grasp of what constitutes today's social faux pas (e.g. Bradley Cooper being the sole person to clap at the end of Scarlett's yoga class is the embarrassing give-away that he is that into her) is just knowing enough to give its audience the grin of recognition.
It's this sense of "we're talking to you," I think, combined with the undeniable star wattage such an ensemble musters, that's making HJNTIY the date movie de jour. The movie is at least hipper than your grandmother's rom-com, as its viral promo that advertises 10 Chick Flick Clichés That Aren't in HJNTIY demonstrates. But will such a trifle of a movie endure? Not highly likely. And much as it's heartening to see any romantic comedy top the box office, the movie's momentary success is giving me that queasy, we-get-the-movies-we-deserve feeling.
If this is the kind of sub-par rom-com that makes a lot of money, what's going to make the studios want to produce a movie that's much better?