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Screenshot: He’s Just Not That Into You
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

The opening scene of He’s Just Not That Into You is great. A little girl is minding her own business on the playground when a boy suddenly shoves her and shouts that she’s made of dog poo. The girl’s mom, hoping to comfort her tearful daughter, conspiratorially explains, “Do you know why that little boy did those things and said those things? It’s because he likes you!” Ginnifer Goodwin’s hitherto gentle voice-over suddenly gets a whole lot sterner: “And there it is,” she explains. “That’s the beginning of our problem. We’re all encouraged, no, programmed to believe that if a guy acts like a total jerk that means he likes you.” It’s a shockingly insightful take from a frothy romantic comedy, one that examines how toxic masculinity is enabled on a societal level and highlights the ways in which women are often raised to be their own worst enemies. It’s also, unfortunately, the sole insightful moment in this otherwise truly abysmal romantic comedy.

I’m almost tempted to say it’s the only good scene in He’s Just Not That Into You, but that seems unfair to a star-studded cast who are all genuinely trying very hard to inject some kind of humanity into this train wreck. Yet how could anyone possibly sell dialogue this bad? There’s a scene where Jennifer Aniston’s spice-company marketing exec exclaims, “This is torture. How am I supposed to come up with something pithy and dynamic to say about cinnamon blends?” To which Goodwin responds, “It’s hard to focus on nutmeg when the guy who might be the guy of my dreams refuses to call me!”

You could argue that there’s maybe supposed to be at least a little bit of goofy camp to that scene, and that He’s Just Not That Into You purposefully introduces its characters in rather broad fashion in order to complicate them as they grapple with their shortcomings. But that’s being awfully generous to a dour, boring, overlong movie that seems to much prefer watching its character suffer than to see them engage in any kind of sparkly romantic happiness. As this website put it upon the film’s 2009 release: “The common thread in He’s Just Not That Into You is the sad spectacle of women embarrassing themselves for love.” Despite a wave of similarly negative reviews, the film made $178.8 million worldwide.

He’s Just Not That Into You is an adaptation of the bestselling 2004 self-help book of the same name, which was written by Sex And The City writers Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, who first created the buzzy phrase for the 2003 episode “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little.” In that episode, Berger advises Miranda that the guy who offered an excuse instead of coming up to her place after their date just isn’t that into her. “I’m sorry, but with guys it’s very simple, if we’re into you, we’re coming upstairs, we’re booking the next date,” Berger explains, in a worldview that doesn’t seem to allow much space for men to be emotionally complex human beings. Regardless, it’s an empowering idea for Miranda, who feels freed not to waste any more time over-interpreting signs and can just get on with her life instead. It’s a concept that works well enough as a subplot in a 30-minute comedy. In a two-plus hour movie, the seams start to show.

Writing partners Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (who had previously written the charming 1999 rom-com Never Been Kissed) were hired to add a narrative spine to the self-help book’s general themes. They chose an intersecting ensemble structure that seems like a pretty conscious effort to ape the success of 2003’s Love Actually. He’s Just Not That Into You takes place in a nondescript version of Baltimore where everyone is white and straight, unless you’re a contractor (Luis Guzmán in a brief appearance) or a gay man who’s singularly obsessed with the dating life of every straight person you meet. (Star Trek: Discovery’s Wilson Cruz and Westworld’s Leonardo Nam join the other likable performers stuck in thankless roles).

Goodwin’s Gigi is the ostensible heart of the film, a lovelorn woman desperate to date literally any sentient man, regardless of whether or not she even likes him. She befriends cynical bartender Alex (Justin Long), who gives voice to the perspective of the book as he becomes her go-to confidante for breaking down why every guy she interacts with is secretly a jerk. Alex is also kind of a jerk, not only to Gigi but to pretty much every woman in his life. One of the big theories he proudly announces is that women secretly love obsessing over uninterested men because, “You all thrive on the drama.” Naturally, he and Gigi end up together, which is framed as a big win for her, despite the fact that, again, it’s never even clear if she actually likes him.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Connelly’s Janine and Bradley Cooper’s Ben are stuck in an unhappy marriage that becomes even more complicated when Ben starts up an affair with yoga teacher/aspiring singer Anna (Scarlett Johansson, stuck in the phase of her career when the only thing Hollywood could think to do with her was have her play one-note sexpots). Anna’s determined to get Ben to leave his wife, but in the meantime she’s vaguely stringing along Conor (Entourage’s Kevin Connolly), the one lovesick male character in the film who represents the “she’s just not that into you” perspective. In the film’s best subplot, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck play a couple who’ve been in a committed relationship for seven years but break up because she wants to get married and he has a stance against the concept of marriage. Despite that kind of silly-sounding premise, it’s a comparatively emotionally mature story about compromise and communication. There’s also Drew Barrymore—whose production company Flower Films produced the movie—playing yet another lovelorn woman, one who’s befuddled by the multi-platform nature of 21st century dating (MySpace messages, emails, and video chats, oh my!).

Unlike Love Actually, which cares more about its men than its women, He’s Just Not That Into You is mostly anchored in the perspective of its female characters. But it’s hard to count that as a win when they’re all such desperate flibbertigibbets, single-mindedly focused on nothing but their dating lives. (Won’t somebody please think of the nutmeg account!) In the world of He’s Just Not That Into You, all women everywhere rely on anecdotal stories of relationship miracles—a cheater who fully reforms, a guy who waits weeks to call but turns out to be the one, etc.—to fool themselves into thinking they’re the exception to the far more common relationship rule. Sometimes the thesis of He’s Just Not That Into You is that women need to stop believing they can change terrible men, sometimes it’s that they need to stop deluding themselves into thinking disinterested guys are into them, sometimes it’s that relationships are complicated and there are no hard and fast rules. Never once does the movie suggest that we should teach men to be less shitty to women.

To its credit, He’s Just Not That Into You ends its various romantic entanglements in several different ways, including a few that emphasize that it’s far better to be alone than to be stuck in an unhealthy relationship. But that idea comes so late in the game that by the time Anna is prioritizing her singing career over her love life (during a montage in which we never even hear her sing), it doesn’t quite balance out the amount of screentime devoted to establishing that she’s, like, super, super hot and absolutely desperate to sleep with a married man. He’s Just Not That Into You spends so much time in the muck of its messed-up relationships that by the time the happy endings come, they don’t feel particularly joyful or satisfying. Whatever you might think of Love Actually’s similarly questionable gender politics, at least that film is fun to watch. Richard Curtis made Love Actually feel like a musical. Ken Kwapis makes He’s Just Not That Into You feel like a dirge.

And yet, for as much as He’s Just Not That Into You annoys me, I can’t pretend I’m entirely immune to it either. Part of that is because its actors really are trying their best, particularly Aniston and Goodwin—two people who by all rights should be rom-com royalty, but who never quite found the right vehicles in the genre. There’s also the fact that I’m such a sucker for rom-com tropes that even when they’re being acted out by jerky characters in underdeveloped storylines, I still have a Pavlovian response to watching Justin Long put on his best puppy dog face to tell Gigi that she’s the exception to all of his rules.

That reaction is exactly what got the romantic comedy genre into so much trouble after its ’90s renaissance. Creators and audiences both started to settle for lowest common denominator replicas of better movies because familiarity and nostalgia is often enough to leave you going, “Eh, that was okay, I guess.” And these big ensemble rom-coms are perfectly designed to allow for maximum romantic-comedy trope evocation without requiring the hard work of creating nuanced characters or original storylines. The financial success of He’s Just Not That Into You opened the floodgates for a wave of lackluster ensemble rom-coms like Valentine’s Day (an even more overt Love Actually knockoff), What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and New Year’s Eve.

The romantic comedy is in a much better place these days, thanks to filmmakers who are actually willing to embrace, challenge, and expand it. But rewatching He’s Just Not That Into You is a stark reminder of how far we’ve come since the dark days of the mid 2000s and early 2010s. It was a grim time for the genre, one where we all collectively decided to settle for less than we deserved—much like so many of the women in He’s Just Not That Into You.

Next time: Twenty-five years ago, Hugh Grant charmed (and stammered) his way through Four Weddings And A Funeral.

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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.