Phil on Film Index

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Review - The Break-Up

You don’t see many mainstream films taking risks these days. With such massive sums and stars’ profiles on the line, most filmmakers elect to stick to the tried and tested rules, and to churn out films which fit neatly into their assigned genres. So it’s hats off to The Break-Up for trying to do something a little bit different to the standard romantic comedy; instead of a couple falling in love, we get a couple falling apart; and it’s a film which aspires to the acerbic, tit-for-tat fun of something like The War of the Roses.

But while we may applaud The Break-Up for taking a different route, we can’t ignore the fact that the film is a miserable failure.

The couple in question here are Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). The opening scene tells the story of their first meeting; when Gary spotted her at a baseball game and sweet-talked her into dumping her boyfriend to be with him. His unorthodox approach must have worked like a charm, because the opening credits which follow are compiled of snapshots detailing their subsequently happy life together. When we next meet Gary and Brooke, they’re a couple of years into their relationship, and are living comfortably in the condo they’ve bought together. Then the cracks start to appear.

The cause of tonight’s tension is a dinner party at which Brooke and Gary’s families will meet for the first time. Brooke is exasperated with Gary’s unwillingness to help her prepare, as he slumps lazily in front of the baseball highlights after she has spent all day cleaning and cooking. The dinner is a twitchy affair, particularly when Brooke’s closeted but clearly gay brother makes Gary visibly uncomfortable; and after the guests have left, the inevitable clash occurs. Brooke finally unleashes all of her pent-up frustration as she chastises Gary for his laziness, his selfishness and his perceived lack of appreciation for her efforts. Gary appears bemused at first, then indignant; and the argument ends with their relationship appearing to be in tatters. Is there any way back for Gary and Brooke?
The Break-Up has been sold with the tagline “Pick a Side”, but the film makes it awfully hard to make a choice. We don’t really know who these people are, we know hardly anything about their relationship, and in the early scenes they bothcome across as fairly dislikeable people. He’s a lazy, self-absorbed slob. She’s an uptight, shrieking harridan. Which side are we meant to plump for here?

But let’s be patient. Perhaps the movie will eventually reveal a little more about these two characters, and maybe it will give us some sort of insight into the reasons their relationship has faltered. Alas, it’s not to be. The Break-Up instead settles into a slack rhythm of half-formed, ill-conceived comic situations as Brooke and Gary each attempt to get the upper hand, and to gain control of the apartment neither wants to lose. They divide up the property, with Gary taking the living room as his bedroom and - as it’s his territory - he childishly decides he can do what he wants in there. This includes playing rock music at full volume, leaving the place looking like a tip with his crisp packets and beer cans all over the place, and inviting his buddies over for evenings of pool and strip poker - with a group of actual strippers.

Brooke, oddly enough, believes there’s still some reason to try and get back together with Gary, and she starts a campaign to make him jealous enough to realise what he’s losing. This includes a bizarrely incongruous sequence in which she gets her pubic hair waxed and parades in front of him naked, and a series of dates with other men whom she always brings to the flat first to make sure Gary’s well aware of her intentions.

The question is, why is Brooke going to all this effort for a waster like Gary? She is more successful than him, she seems to be the only one putting any sort of effort into their relationship, and she has eligible bachelors lining up for her at the art gallery she works at - what on earth does she see in this 12 year-old she has somehow been lumbered with? The movie never gives us an answer to that, and even though the film has three writers credited (screenwriters Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, along with Vaughn himself), none of them seem to have the faintest idea where this story is going. The Break-Up consists of individual scenes which are shoehorned into place whether they fit with the overall narrative arc or not; and when each supposedly humorous scene dies a lonely death, director Peyton Reed simply pushes it aside and moves us on to the next one.

With such a flimsy script, the filmmakers must have been banking on the rapport between real-life couple Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn to bring the movie to life - Bad call. Vaughn and Aniston may have fallen for each other during the making of The Break-Up, but whatever chemistry they share stays strictly off-screen. They spend 100 minutes arguing and screaming and shouting at each other here, but they may as well be acting in different movies such is the lack of heat the pair generate together. Aniston is OK; she at least manages to inject a little emotion into her performance, but her film performances are all becoming very similar and she doesn’t seem to be able or willing to really extend herself beyond the comfort zone of Friends’ Rachel. On the other side of this domestic war, Vaughn is disappointingly lacklustre, and his limited acting style - alternatively jabber-mouthed sarcasm or slack-jawed laziness - may work well in traditional comic roles, but not when his characters require a little more depth.

Vaughn does manage to build up a genuine sense of rapport with one of his co-stars though; his old Swingers buddy John Favreau, who turns in a nicely understated turn as Gary’s loyal but violent best friend, and their scenes together are probably the best in the film. The supporting cast is so often the saving grace of a bad romantic comedy, but unfortunately none of the other bit-part players here can match Favreau‘s efforts. Judy Davis overacts horribly as Brooke’s boss, John Michael Higgins can do little with his gay stereotype role (the film even recycles the old “gay man bursts into song at the dinner table” routine, to excruciating effect), and Vincent D’Onofrio has a few tics and mannerisms but no real character as Gary’s brother.

This curious film plods its way through the dull to-and-fro of Gary and Brooke’s relationship - like a simple-minded and severely diluted version of Scenes From a Marriage - until things finally run their course. I suppose you could say that the way The Break-Up chooses to end is quite interesting, but I really didn’t care by that point. The lack of empathy this film stirs up for its two protagonists really is startling, and late attempts to wring some sort of pathos out of this couple’s situation ring resoundingly hollow. What a strange piece of work this is, a romantic comedy utterly lacking in romance or comedy, and with no insight or emotion to fill the gap. It simply sits flaccidly on the screen, expecting us to care for this couple without giving us a reason to do so. It was never going to work; and while breaking up may be hard to do, The Break-Up is painful for all the wrong reasons.