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He's Just Not That into You **

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As an explanation of romantic incompatibility, the catchphrase title, He’s Just Not That into You, is stunningly unilluminating, no matter which of its six words is stressed. (On screen, the third one stands out in green from the white of the rest, but that seems an arbitrary reading.) Satisfied with the what and incurious about the why, it tends to slam the door on further discussion. The screen treatment of Greg Behrendt’s and Liz Tuccillo’s best-selling advice book, illustrated by way of a fictitious mating game for five women and four men, is similarly in curious. It’s... just... not... that... into... anybody. The mystery of human matches and mismatches would of course persist, regardless of how much concrete evidence is piled up in search of a solution, but the filmmakers appear loath to dig too deep. Their objects of study remain light on personalities, preferences, professions, particulars of any type.

Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Connelly, and Jennifer Aniston are co-workers (easy to keep straight in your mind as long as you remember the actresses’ first names), although their work is nothing more than how and where they know one another. Each of them represents a common stage of relationship: the desperate single, the contented married, and the committed but uncontentedly unmarried, respectively. The two men in their lives, Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper, are acquainted with each other to some unclear degree. The anti-marriage one probably but unobservably has a job, and definitely has a boat to fall back on when booted out of the apartment. The married one, on the other hand, has a private office, and some connection to the music business, which gives him an excuse to flirt dangerously with Scarlett Johansson, who wants to be a singer in some undemonstrated capacity and in the meantime teaches yoga. She in some distant way (if I am remembering correctly) knows Drew Barrymore, whose relations with the opposite sex, apart from a constellation of homosexual colleagues at the weekly Baltimore Blade, are strictly filtered through the technologies of text-message, voice-mail, and E-mail. In her position as advertising sales rep, she exchanges calls with, but has never met in the flesh, a real-estate agent, Kevin Connolly, who used to sleep with Scarlett Johansson and still yearns to. He in turn is friends with a bar owner, Justin Long, who becomes the Platonic confidant and counselor of the aforementioned desperate single, and thus becomes the primary mouthpiece for the authors of the original self-help book.

Those are the players (Kris Kristofferson, a cardiac-arrested father and not an active player, cannot be said to even the sides), and the benefit of filling the female roles with Hollywood A-listers, besides supplying an illusion of personality to the underwritten characters, is that it overthrows the hierarchy of the standard romantic comedy. There are no sidekick roles here for a Joan Cusack or a Judy Greer. Each of the five women is, so to put it, the star of her own movie, the center of her own universe. Goodwin, to be sure, is not on the same career plane with the others, but her role of the desperate single, and sparse narrator, is at least their equal, if not more than. The men, outside of Affleck, and even he at this point in his career is doubtful, are not on the women’s plane, either, but this is after all a women’s film. (Plenty of interest, and no insult, to men as well. It isn’t Sex and the City, where the male characters amounted to mere accessories.) All of the actresses are well up to the light comedy, even the normally bedevilled Connelly: as witness her cross-examination of the construction foreman on the smoking habits of his crew. She, though, in the part of the betrayed wife, also bears the heaviest dramatic burden, and distinguishes herself by bearing it heroically. Johansson distinguishes herself as an hourglass among test tubes. And yet, however much the casting may assail hierarchy, and however much it may promote equality, it can’t help but reinforce the Tinsel Town tenet that the only people in the world who matter are the pretties.

The stubborn superficiality, even so, puts up no impenetrable barrier to enjoyment. The filmmakers grapple with real and eternal and universal issues, in precisely the same sense that their puppets, the characters, grapple with them: the transmission and interpretation of signs and signals, the exercise of power and will, the preservation of self, the hope of happiness. And all of their grappling is doubtless more fluent, and perhaps no more superficial, than that of average moviegoers, who can view the sketchiness, the emptiness, of the personalities as a blank screen on which to project their own. Ken Kwapis, while not a director of impressive imagination, is an efficient traffic cop, maintaining good spacing and smooth flow; and his ace cinematographer, John Bailey, oils up the action in luscious, flattering, sunsetty pinks and oranges. There are plainly too many characters, too uneven in numbers, for happy endings to be arranged across the board; and such arrangements are tricky enough to be not readily apparent from the start. As far as they can be made, they fall well short of Jane Austen, but they nevertheless are deftly brought off, and they contain (to judge by the reactions of the preview audience) a couple of certifiable squeal-with-delight climaxes. If the whole thing — superficiality, slickness, prettiness, and the rest — is not the warmest human spectacle, it has a distinct resemblance, and it’s all done with words and looks and no special effects.

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Comments

mike1 Feb. 12, 2009 @ 6:20 p.m.

Hey joshb...my curiosity has got the better of me. Is the woman in this weeks off the cuff who said The Reader (the movie) is flawless the same one you argued with? And was that a crashed party perchance?

I'm always surprised when Duncan gives a decent review to a movie whose preview made it look groan inducing. Such is the case of this week's review. I will give the benefit of the doubt until I see it, if and when that happens.

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SpliffAdamz_ Feb. 19, 2009 @ 9:14 a.m.

I'm sorry , it sounds like a low budget sex and the city. Regardless who's playing in it male or female this movie looks like a sleeper movie. The ones you fall asleep on!!!

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