I was really looking forward to seeing He’s Just Not That Into You. Don’t judge! Admit it—you were, too. It’s been a cold, dark and depressing winter (and I’m not just talking about the weather), so is it any wonder that the ubiquitous and sunny trailer for the film—chock full of beautiful people like Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Ginnifer Goodwin, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Connelly, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Connolly and Bradley Cooper, bumbling around in matters of the heart—might be appealing? In fact, the aforementioned trailer includes the opening scene of the film, a quick vignette that won me over instantly. Here’s how it goes:
A little girl gets shoved by a boy at the playground and told she smells like dog poo. Weeping little girl runs to her mother, who wipes her face and explains that the little boy did that because, in fact, he likes her. Little girl wrinkles adorable nose and looks skyward while a voice-over from Ms. Goodwin dramatically intones, “That’s the beginning of our problem. We’re all programmed to believe that if a guy acts like a total jerk, that means he likes you.”
And—ha!—that’s kind of funny because it’s kind of true, right? (For those wondering, the answer is yes and no and it depends.) Sure, it’s well-traversed ground—and I don’t even mean to conjure memories of Sex and the City, which first coined the quip “he’s just not that into you” (instant Occam’s Razor philosophy for the lovelorn) and inspired a best-selling book before giving birth to this film. Think of the countless romantic comedies before it that had hard-and-fast rules along these same lines: the man whom the woman has been sniping with throughout acts one and two becomes the man she can’t live without by act three. The platonic friend you never once considered a romantic prospect is, in fact, your soul mate. The most boorish of cads will become downright princely if you can just hang on for 90 minutes. Do these things tend to happen in real life? No! But you know what? Who cares? Because, after all, they’re just movies and, besides, it’s February. And often these films make you happy. (Two Weeks Notice, we’re looking at you.)
So, with that being said, how can I explain the feeling of rage that had me white-knuckling my armrest by the end of He’s Just Not That Into You? Unlike the best of romantic comedies—the ones that send you swooning home with thoughts of first kisses and your own private montage of slo-mo paint fights in your first shared apartment, chasing lobsters or dragging a Christmas tree down a West Village cobblestoned street (somebody cue up “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”!)—this movie honestly made me never want to date again. It kind of made me not want to be a woman! Wait, scratch that. It kind of made me not want to be a member of the entire human race.
A GROSS OVERREACTION? A byproduct of mounting zeitgeistian anxiety and recent singlehood? Perhaps. But let’s break it down anyway, because unlike a straight-up bad movie à la The Love Guru, this film is not easy to dismiss.
He’s Just Not That Into You is something much more sneaky and nefarious than your garden-variety romantic comedy, because it almost gets at something true and dark about people: how even the best of us can behave really badly. After the playground scene, as we’re getting to know the interwoven cast of couples and singletons, a woman goes on a first date with a guy, and walks away thinking it has gone great, while said man goes home and calls the girl he’s really interested in. That particular girl is gunning for a married man, but when her ego needs stroking, she rings up the fallback guy, who is still ignoring the girl he went on the date with. All that sort of sucks, but then again, so do people. I wondered, could He’s Just Not That Into You be a sort of scary-realist film dressed in funny clothing à la The Break-Up?
Alas, the answer is no, for at every opportunity to show the dirty underbelly of all of our collective romantic foibles, the film spooks itself and scampers away to safer and sunnier ground. (Do not finish reading this paragraph if you don’t want to know some of the happy endings of this film!) Take, for instance, the story of Beth and Neil, who at the beginning of the movie have been happily dating for seven years. They’re committed and in love, but when Beth’s sister gets married, she spazzes out about their lack of wedded-ness, though Neil is one of those guys who is highly principled on the topic of why he doesn’t believe in marriage. It’s realistic! Seriously. So is her freakout, which of course inspires her to break up with him. Later on, he shows up when she needs him most and she (aha!) realizes that she doesn’t need to be married to be happy and tells him that, in fact, he’s been more of a husband to her than most husbands she knows.
A tiny part of my heart cheered—this is a woman being smart, rational and sensitive to her partner’s desires!—but then Neil inexplicably proposes anyway at the end and they get married after all.
I would have forgiven this movie for everything else that’s wrong with it (the weird gay stuff, the lack of ethnic color in Baltimore, Justin Long in general) if these two characters had been allowed to be true to themselves—not to be happily married ever after, but just happily ever after. Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck as Beth and Neil were good enough that it seemed real—they were strong the way they were, principled. So why did the filmmakers not trust us, the audience, to accept that too?
BUT THAT WAS just the most glaring of the backtracking done in this film. The cast of this movie—no matter what anyone ends up saying about it—is fantastic, which makes it all the more difficult to make sense of what you’re actually watching. How come Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston haven’t done anything onscreen together before this, when they’re so great together? Jennifer Connelly gives her anal retentive character many shades of gray; Kevin Connolly successfully made us forget about Entourage’s E; Scarlett Johansson is perfectly flighty and sexpotty; Bradley Cooper is believably maybe-shady; and Ginnifer Goodwin is refreshingly charming, even though she plays Gigi, the most pathetically desperate character to come around in some time. Forget the fact that Ms. Goodwin is gorgeous, so it’s hard to believe she’d have trouble getting men to ask her out a second time (even if this does take place in a fantastical loft-and-yacht-filled land called “Baltimore”). It’s hard to imagine any woman who would go to the cyber-stalking and obsessive lengths that Gigi does doesn’t have at least one friend who would take her aside and tell her to dial it down a thousand or, at the very least, not shriek when Gigi thinks some guy really likes her.
She’s like a Cathy cartoon times a thousand, but somehow even more cringe-worthy.
We know there are crazy ladies out there, reading The Rules or hanging out in produce aisles to meet dudes, but did they have to make poor Ginnifer Goodwin this nuts? Why, when the world has lovable, smart and endearingly nutty single lady characters out there like Liz Lemon—why do we need such a depiction? Furthermore, if the filmmakers were going to make Gigi this unhinged, how can they possibly make us believe she’d become sane enough by the end of the film to snag the guy who shunned commitment and live life happily ever after, playing charades in some other couple’s living room?
If “he’s just not that into you” is the mantra that the film preaches—that it’s not that some guy is intimidated by your emotional maturity or happy childhood or successful job or whatever, it’s that he actually just doesn’t want to date you—why oh why did the film take so much time laying out how there are no exceptions to the “no exceptions” rule and then make so many exceptions? I’ve long believed that people can be divided into two camps: those who do and those who do not enjoy Love, Actually. I’m firmly in the enjoy camp: It was nonsensical and unrealistic, sure, but in a good way—it strayed so far from real life (Hugh Grant was the prime minister! And danced around 10 Downing Street!) that one could enjoy it for what it was, a fantasy starring stammering, unbelievably handsome Englishmen and plenty of feel-good happy endings. The problem with He’s Just Not That Into You is that it wants to be that kind of fun plus something more Neil LaBute–ian. It’s like the bizarro version of Your Friends and Neighbors, but unwilling to fully commit to the dark and lonely sadness of it all, so it ties everything together with a big sparkly bow that only undermines the entire message of its first half.
It’s possible that if the cast of this film hadn’t done such a good job—if I hadn’t been able to squint my eyes and see what could have been—I’d have simply waited for its week or two in the news to go away. But as it is, I’m mad, and more than a little depressed. He’s Just Not That Into You? Thanks for telling me it’s even worse out there than I thought.