Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck, in 'He's Just Not That Into You'

Dir. Ken Kwapis
(2009, PG-13, 129 min)
★ ★

The trailers and TV ads teased a romantic comedy for the information age. They repeated, as a mission statement of sorts, a clever line of dialogue about the culture of BlackBerries, email accounts, social networking sites, and cell phones: “Now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting.”

Unfortunately, He’s Just Not That Into You isn’t about modern romance or modern characters, and in fact the character who speaks that dialogue, played by Drew Barrymore, is hardly in the film at all save a handful of scenes. Instead, the film feels dated, cynical in an old-fashioned kind of way. It’s not about human relationships, it’s about a set of rules for obscuring human interaction on the dating scene. It plays like Love Actually written by schoolchildren.

Instead of a 21st Century heroine, this film gives us Gigi, a pre-feminist antique of love-starved desperation; she makes Ally McBeal look like Xena Warrior Princess. The idea is to watch her evolve from boy-crazy neurotic to savvy relationship guru. She will learn to stop reading the wrong signs and start reading the right signs, but all I want to do is tell her to stop worrying about the damn signs and forget about dating for a while. A long while. Gigi is played by Ginnifer Goodwin, a radiant actress in other roles, most notably a polygamist wife on HBO’s series Big Love, but here she’s made to play a character so needy that her scenes are depressing instead of funny.

Gigi meets Alex (Justin Long), who has a Jedi-like skill at spotting when a man isn’t really interested in a woman. If he claims he’s going out of town, he doesn’t want to see you again. If he doesn’t call, he never will. Some of these ring of frank, common-sense truth, and the initial message is sound: don’t waste your time on men who don’t want you. But the more deeply we delve into the rules, the colder and more dehumanizing they become. Let me present an alternative: if you’re dating somebody who understands the rules of the game, find someone who isn’t playing.

The film juggles multiple characters. Some are likable, some aren’t. Some we spend too much time with, some too little. Either way, this isn’t the screenplay to properly deal with them. There is a storyline involving a music executive (Bradley Cooper), his wife (Jennifer Connelly), and his potential mistress (Scarlett Johansson). The wife is the most dimensional of the three, but the writing highlights self-pity and irrationality. An especially unpleasant scene has her accusing her contractor’s crew of sneaking cigarettes while renovating her house. She really suspects her husband, and I think we’re meant to laugh at how she deflects her anger onto the innocent man, but the humor is at her expense, and the feeling is mean-spirited.

The Barrymore character, Mary, works for a gay newspaper, The Baltimore Blade. Why does the screenplay put her to work for a gay newspaper? For the sole purpose of providing her with a cadre of Gay Confidantes, who exist in the movies for the sole purpose of providing counsel to straight women. Mary gets a trio, who warn her about the pitfalls of MySpace and insist on listening to a phone message from a prospective boyfriend. Over the course of the film, we don’t see these characters write any news; their office functions entirely as a romantic way station.

At one point, Mary advises real estate agent Conor (Kevin Connolly, of TV’s Entourage) to place an ad to expand his clientele. Conor too is lovelorn, and soon he also has a pair of helpful gay men who tell him how best to score with the woman he loves. If ever a single gay man would say, “Deal with it yourself,” he would instantly become the film’s most interesting character.

One relationship works — works so well in fact that we wonder why the characters didn’t leave to make their own movie. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) has been in a committed relationship with Neil (Ben Affleck) for seven years. Beth wants to get married, but Neil doesn’t believe in it. This is the only storyline that doesn’t feel contrived around juvenile rules and games and signals and tricks. It’s based on how she feels, how he feels, and how they deal with it. They speak like adults. They’re not playing at love, they’re in it. There is a late scene where Beth takes the measure of her sisters’ husbands, and then unexpectedly finds Neil performing household chores. What we learn about their relationship in the space of a single look is so pure and genuine that it puts the rest of the film to shame.

He’s Just Not That Into You is finally not even true to itself. It talks a good game about women not deluding themselves — “You’re the rule, not the exception,” Alex keeps telling Gigi. But screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein back-load the screenplay with exceptions, in order to supply the kind of wish-fulfillment happy endings that encourage women to delude themselves in the first place. Even Beth and Neil, who might have had a sublime ending, are hijacked in the end by an extremely conventional one.

If you follow the rules, you too could be an exception to them, the film seems to tell us, thereby revealing that it has nothing to say to us at all. Viewers looking for insight into relationships would more wisely consult the works of Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary), Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money, Lovely & Amazing), or Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters). Their films are about people. This one is about warfare.