Has there ever been a worse title for a date movie? Just as When Harry Met Sally . . . was framed as the ultimate story about getting together, He’s Just Not That Into You aspires be a modern overview of romantic rejection. Like Rob Reiner’s film, it interrupts its storyline for pseudo-documentary bits in which men and women sound off “candidly”; at the end, the characters themselves become subjects, speaking to the camera. But the vérité touches can’t hide its Hollywood fakeness.
Basing a comedy on Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s self-help bestseller wasn’t a bad idea. Like many popular works in the genre, He’s Just Not That Into You starts from a sensible observation — a man who doesn’t seem interested in a woman really isn’t interested in her — and spins it into a dubious theory. As Tuccillo herself suggests in the book, Behrendt makes some big assumptions: for instance, that there’s a soulmate out there for every woman (he’s the one who calls every day), and that men aren’t susceptible to ambivalence, complexity or change.
What better way to test those assumptions than by letting them play out in fictional scenarios? The movie kicks off with a first date between a saucer-eyed pixie named Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) and a dimply, callow real-estate agent (Kevin Connolly). As the realtor leaves the bar, he’s already texting the yoga instructor (Scarlett Johansson) he’s really interested in. But the yoga instructor is busy chatting up a handsome married man (Bradley Cooper). The married man’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) just happens to be our friend Gigi’s co-worker, and a champion giver of bad romantic advice. (“I knew a girl who dated a guy and he didn’t call her for two weeks, and now they’re married and insanely in love!”)
The interlocking plots don’t end there. When Cooper is tempted by Johansson, he consults with his friend Ben Affleck, who’s managed to stay unwed — much to the dismay of long-time girlfriend Jennifer Aniston. And when Gigi starts to realize the realtor isn’t ever going to call her, she seeks guidance from bar manager Alex (Justin Long), who acquaints her with the gospel promulgated by Behrendt’s book. (In a nutshell: Forget him and move on.)
All these entanglements are entertaining for about 45 minutes. That’s when it becomes clear that not one of these characters transcends the sort of stereotypes commonly found in bit players in “Sex and the City” episodes — the Cad, the Ditz, the Seductress, the Clueless Wife, the Long-Suffering Girlfriend. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (the team behind Never Been Kissed) have crafted some funny scenes of dating-related humiliation. But they fail to show us the chemistry that brings couples together, perhaps because that combo of mental and physical attraction is such an idiosyncratic phenomenon. When Johansson tells Cooper he has an ass that makes her want to dry-hump, it’s hard not to yearn for the wit and smoothness of the Cary Grant era. Not because her come-on is crude, but because it’s about as imaginative as your average dialogue on a reality show.
Few of the big-name actors make an impact — Affleck could be doing this in his sleep, while Aniston is notable mainly for her increasingly unsettling blue-gimlet-eyed stare. Connelly tries in vain to flesh out her character’s anguish, and nerdy Long doesn’t cut it as a patronizing player and self-styled dating guru. (Maybe Dane Cook was unavailable?)
The only stand-out is Goodwin as Gigi, playing the kind of role Drew Barrymore would have played 10 years ago. (Barrymore executive-produced this film and appears in a subplot about ill-fated MySpace hookups.) When Goodwin laments, “But if I stop dating guys who don’t like me, there won’t be anyone left!” she manages to be ridiculous and real at once. The tacked-on standard rom-com ending is a disservice to her.
And to the audience. Compared with Bride Wars and its ilk, He’s Just Not That Into You is practically Chekhov. But that observation just underscores that it’s time for women to demand a better, wittier, more down-and-dirty honest class of chick flick. Tina Fey, are you listening?