Here’s a movie that starts by being hollow, settles into uncomfortable acrimony, tries to leaven the dark mood with meek asides then builds, if we can call it that, towards a tacked-on ending that in real life could pass as a sense of potential but in this case feels disconnected from what happened before.
The first sign that something is amiss with “The Break-Up” is how quickly it doesn’t want to be about a relationship but about a break-up, depriving its characters of a proper introduction to the audience. After art gallery attendant Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and tour bus guide Gary (Vince Vaughn) exchange a few words at Wrigley Field, it’s already time for a photo montage that leads to these supposed lovers sharing a condo. I can imagine a film where that sequence would have been a cute throw-in during the end credits, but Peyton Reed’s non-romantic, misguided semi-comedy is not that movie. How are we supposed to care about people we’ve only seen, almost literally, in a few snapshots?
The problems in this Chicago-set picture start with the couple fighting over the “Three Lemons Incident” and the “Dishes Dispute” we’re familiar with from the ads and continue after the would-be couple behaves in juvenile ways sure to worsen the situation (him) or in questionable fishing-for-a-reaction tactics (her). I know the previously mentioned disagreements are not really about lemons and dishes. She wants to go to the ballet; he’d rather go to Michigan for a college football game. It comes down to Gary being a self-centered guy who can’t be bothered when watching a ball game after work, and Brooke finally erupting at his indifference (he should have volunteered to help with those dishes) and the fact that he’s been taking her for granted. Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him?
Vaughn’s real-life friend Jon Favreau doesn’t have that much to say or do as Gary’s best friend. John Michael Higgins is funny as Brooke’s outgoing, singing fool of a brother, but the other supporting roles have no substance to them whatsoever, and that’s a large group that includes Vincent D’Onofrio and Cole Hauser as Gary’s brothers, Judy Davis as Brooke’s boss and Joey Lauren Adams as Brooke’s best friend.
From the structure of the film, it’s hard to see what could have made Brooke and Gary want to live together (whether Aniston and Vaughn are really an item is a whole other story). Yet both lead actors do their best with material that is essentially flawed and generally unpleasant to sit through as moviegoers. Aniston excels at quiet exasperation that sometimes boils over, like in this film, into justified outrage, and she has the intense stare and biting voice to pull that off. She had an eye-opening performance in 2002’s The Good Girl, but don’t forget she first dipped her feet into dramatic territory as early as 1996 with a supporting role in She’s the One, one of my old favourites and a real charmer I strongly recommend as a rental. I don’t need to elaborate on the real-life break-up that Aniston was going through while “The Break-Up” was filming, and she has often described doing the movie as cathartic. And allow me to say this about the wardrobe department: with the exception of her French maid outfit in Friends with Money, Aniston hasn’t looked this stunning at the movies since Picture Perfect (1997).
Vaughn (Swingers, Old School, The Wedding Crashers) is obviously comfortable in the kind of scenes where he’s shooting pool with the boys or playing video games as if nothing else matters. I’m not sure to what degree he contributed to Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick’s screenplay, but the end result is lacking in emotional honesty. A puppeteer can only pull some strings a certain way before the audience feels jerked around just as much as the puppet. For the most part, the unpleasant tone of “The Break-Up” makes us want to see Gary and Brooke break up and move on already. Then the filmmakers dangle a carrot, and then they remove it only to dangle it again under the umbrella of possibilities. But beyond a certain point, you can’t blame people for just moving on themselves.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay