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'Just Not That Into You' is just not believable

Are guys really that hard to understand? They are, at least according to He's Just Not That Into You, a romantic comedy in which young, excessively attractive Baltimoreans struggle to understand dating, relationships and their significant others.

The premise is pretty simple: When it comes to matters of the heart, women steadfastly refuse to see what's right in front of them. The same holds true for guys, by the way, but let's let the gals believe in their uniqueness, at least until the movie's over. As far as He's Just Not That Into You is concerned, the search for love equals desperation.

Director Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Never Been Kissed) riff repeatedly on that oldest of comedy-film standards, the idea that men and women are simply incapable of understanding one another. But they do give it an ingratiating new spin.

With an all-star cast maintaining an amiable tone throughout, the result is a movie in which everyone should see themselves for at least a few minutes (and wish they were that young, that beautiful and that well-off). It's a film that lets you embrace the lightheartedness of it all, even while chuckling knowingly at the absurdity.

Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the most outwardly desperate of all, dating a succession of guys, then frantically trying to figure out whether each is the one guy she can at least go out on a second date with. She's a bit of a mess, but Goodwin exudes just enough charm to keep her from becoming cloying. Lucky for her, she finds a sympathetic ear in Alex (Justin Long), a worldly, wise bartender who specializes in translating what all those guys are trying to tell her.

(Of course, it's hard to believe someone as beautiful and endearing as Goodwin would ever have such problems. But hey, this is Hollywood, where Sandra Bullock gets to play the plain-Jane girl-next-door. That kind of reality has never been the place's strong suit.)

Gigi is surrounded by women embroiled in various relationships, none of them exactly happy. Beth ( Jennifer Aniston) has a live-in boyfriend, Neil ( Ben Affleck), who's committed to her, but won't get married. Janine ( Jennifer Connelly) is married to a guy (Bradley Cooper) she's convinced is smoking behind her back - a lie she simply cannot tolerate. What she doesn't know or suspect is that he's having an affair with young hottie Anna ( Scarlett Johansson), who can't believe her good fortune at having found such a stable guy.

And then there's poor, pitiable Mary ( Drew Barrymore), an ad rep for the local gay newspaper, The Baltimore Blade, who's been rejected via every new technology available: e-mail, MySpace, text messaging, Twitter, probably even mass mailing. About the only time she seems to have luck with a guy is when selling ad space to a Realtor ( Kevin Connolly) anxious to establish a base in the gay community.

Not a single character, of course, understands himself or herself as well as he or she thinks, and none of the relationships ends up being what it initially seems.

The conceit is that, when searching for love, women simply don't listen. Goodwin, especially, brings the point home; given the plurality of screen time, she makes Gigi's frustration and befuddlement understandable - and, more importantly, relatable. When she tries to figure out what "I'll call you" really means, everyone past the age of 12 can relate. When a guy looks at her and she tries to decide whether he's interested or just being polite, you feel for her.

Some of the other characters aren't served as well - no surprise, when you have nine big to fairly big stars vying for screen time. Aniston's Beth has emotions that seem to turn on a dime, and her big revelation about Neil comes on the heels of a farcical wedding that seems lifted from another movie. And could any man really be as clueless as Long's Alex?

The movie stumbles somewhat when it tries to get serious - Janine's obsession with cigarette smoking comes across as more silly than obsessive, while Kris Kristofferson is wasted in his all-too-brief appearances as Beth's sagely father. But the tone stays frothy for the most part, and the actors take advantage of the collective good will they've established with their audience over the years. It's especially welcome to see Connelly playing things light and Johansson proving she doesn't need Woody Allen to be funny.

Perhaps it would have been nice if He's Just Not That Into You had been just a smidgen more grounded in reality, if there could have been at least a suggestion that Baltimore is populated by someone other than inordinately attractive white people, or if the streets of the city looked just a tick less like something taken from a picture postcard. In that sense, the movie, based on a book that was an outgrowth of an episode of Sex and the City, stays perhaps a little too true to its roots.

Then again, this is light comedy, not sociology. And after years of Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner and The Wire, there's pleasure to be found in a Baltimore movie where broken hearts are the only crimes given any significant screen time.

He's Just Not That Into You(New Line Cinema) Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations and language. Time 129 minutes.

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