In romantic comedies, the end of a relationship is usually just a contrivance to separate the two lead characters before reuniting them for a happy ending (see generic rom-coms like You’ve Got Mail or The Story of Us for reference). The Break-Up is a different animal, because here the end of the relationship isn’t just an obstacle in the story, it is the story. The film was developed (and co-written) by Vince Vaughn, who specializes in playing loveable dirtbags. He pairs himself with sitcom queen Jennifer Aniston, who has been trying for years to establish herself as a movie star. The question is, can you develop a romantic comedy around two people making each other miserable?
To start with, despite its promotional campaign, The Break-Up is not a romantic comedy. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments throughout, but the tone throughout out is heavier than the light and frothy trailers would have you believe. The movie opens with Brooke (Aniston) and Gary (Vaughn) meeting cute at a baseball game. The credits roll, and suddenly we find ourselves two years into Brooke and Gary’s relationship sharing an only-in-Hollywood condo in Chicago. Considering the title, it’s not giving anything away to say that their relationship quickly hits the skids. What is surprising are the unique and mostly believable twists and turns the story takes from there.
The script, by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender from a story they developed with Vaughn, is a refreshingly realistic take on the age-old battle of the sexes. Comparisons to The War of the Roses will abound, but that deliciously over the top, decidedly ’80s satire bears little similarity in tone or content to The Break-Up except for the focus on the disintegration of a relationship. The initial fight that catalyzes the title break-up is one of the most honest representations of the differences between men and women represented on screen in recent memory. Subsequent arguments also rang true-to-life and at different points during the screening, you could hear men and women mumbling in agreement or laughing knowingly.
Director Peyton Reed is more successful here than in his previous efforts, the tacky, lowbrow Bring It On and the excessively precious flop, Down with Love. The only areas where Reed and the screenwriters go wrong are in the supporting characters. There are too many needlessly weird, trying-to-be-funny bit players on the fringes of this movie and their broad, hammy comedy, while occasionally funny, mostly falls flat and seems out of place. Aniston’s art gallery co-workers (including a Cruella DeVil-ish Judy Davis) are annoying and way over the top. Ditto for Brooke and Gary’s families, featuring Vincent D’Onofrio doing some kind of odd, method-geek acting and John Michael Higgins in a retread of his Best in Show antics.
What keeps the supporting cast on track is that both Gary and Brooke are given best friend confidantes who remind them throughout that their childish antics are only making matters worse. Squeaky-voiced Joey Lauren Adams is fun in a change-of-pace role as Brooke’s dry gal pal, Maddie. Even better is longtime Vaughn cohort Jon Favreau as Gary’s best buddy, Johnny O. Vaughn and Favreau still work as well together as they did in their breakout film, Swingers. Their back-and-forth bantering is fun and you can tell they improvised some of their dialogue.
While it’s great that Favreau and Vaughn click together, the real question here is whether or not Vaughn and Aniston do. Fortunately for the filmmakers, the answer is yes. They are utterly believable as a couple and their scenes together are fueled by their strong chemistry—even when they are fighting. Vaughn has played this kind of part before, but it’s encouraging to see him reveal a more serious side in the second half of the film. It’s a sober, more evolved version of his part in last year’s Wedding Crashers. Aniston is also in fine form. After being horribly miscast (and somewhat degraded) in last year’s Derailed, it’s nice to see her in a part that plays to her strong suits. She is not the greatest actress around, but when she is in her element, she’s terrific. Here she is able to reveal some depth that her past roles haven’t offered her. Indeed, this is her best performance since 1998’s sorely overlooked The Object of My Affection.
What is most refreshing about the film is that it doesn’t make either of them the bad guy. They both do rotten things to each other and the film allows them both moments of sensitivity where they realize they’ve gone too far. It’s also the rare romantic film that shows their characters grown and change. Despite its occasional lapses in tone, The Break-Up is smart and fun; it’s a relationship that’s worth investing a couple of hours in, even if the lead characters aren’t so sure.
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