They're confused, bless their hearts, Vince Vaughn and his writers and Jen and director Peyton Reed. According to their publicity, this team thinks they made an "anti-romantic comedy," but no. What they've delivered, for whatever other use it may have, is an anti-date movie.
Met someone who may be that Special Someone? Having those first tinglings of feelings that threaten to become warm and fuzzy? Looking forward to that perfect dinner-movie-and-what-good-things-may-come-after night for the two of you? Go see MI3, go see XM3, go see any movie with any combination of letters and numbers in its title, but do not take your prospective honey to see The Break-Up.
True, it's had a great opening weekend, but look out for the next few, once the voyeuristic "let's look at the Anis-Vaughn" buzz dies, 'cause: talk about romance buzzkill...
Yes, there are scattered moments of effective comedy and effectively poignant emotion to be found amidst the movie's general incoherence. But it's been badly misrepresented by its ad campaign. The trailer for The Break-Up promises the usual rom-com high jinks ensuing in a black comedic vein -- love as a battleground, a kind of War of the Roses for today's young professional set. Yet that isn't what's on the full-feature's screen.
You do get a kind of misshapen, under-developed version of that movie for stretches of the second act -- the bits where Vince and Jen have already broken up but both refuse to vacate their condo, so lines are drawn and supposedly comedic complications result. But for the most part, the first of the pic's two major missed opportunities boils down to this Folly #1: they left out the movie they rode in on.
Say "break-up" to your average survivor of the love wars, and many things may come to mind, from the agonizing, ultimately pointless discussions that keep one up till dawn in one's underwear, to the peculiarly powerful eroticism of temporary truce make-up sex. Break-Up limits its War of the Roommate Exes to a couple of tit-for-tat gags less imaginative than a good Odd Couple episode, while what gets left out is very nicely summarized by Carina Chocano in her L.A. Times review:
There are no retreats, further miscommunication, no well-intended, personal gravedigging conversations late into the night, no breakup sex, no makeup sex, no compulsive dialing, no drinking and dialing, no ill-advised visits to therapists, I could go on. (Tony and Carmela a few seasons ago on "The Sopranos," now there was a breakup.) If the writers are to be believed, it is possible for a two-year relationship that has survived the purchase and remodeling of community property to snap like a chicken's neck after a single fight. Really? She never even tries to talk?
What we get instead -- always a red flag for a movie in trouble -- is a lot of contrived, albeit amusing footwork by the supporting players. Vincent D'Onofrio does an inspired turn as a hapless brother more emotionally cut-off than Vince's character, John Favreau gets to reprise his clueless rom-com buddy role from Swingers, and the brilliant Judy Davis milks a kind of "Mary Boone on acid meets Auntie Mame's evil sister" performance out of a sketchy Gallery Owner From Hell role, as Jen's boss.
Meanwhile, though, what's supposed to be dead center in this movie -- how a great romance goes south and how funny the worst of that can be when the two lovers are stuck under the same roof -- gets remarkably lackluster play.
No, ultimately, it turns out that what Vaughn and co. were going for (and this assumes, perhaps mistakenly, that they really did know what they were doing) was something else, a kind of Annie Hall-ish The Way They Were sort of deal, where we're supposed to tear up at the sight of two fatally mismatched meant-for-each-other people who ultimately can't make it work. Problem here is, Folly #2: they left out the people.
Rom-com writers, please take heed, as I once again flog this familiar craft horse (because, dagnabbit, the nag so rarely seems to place or show these days): in a romantic comedy, it's not the obstacles that come between two lovers that require the most attention -- what needs to be established, first, foremost and most deeply, is what makes these two people clearly, inextricably, passionately meant to be together.
The audience has to believe that he + she = a match that makes sense, we have to find their chemical equation (the moving parts of their psyches and personalities that logically fit together) credible. Otherwise we don't really buy the movie's premise: that they are in fact a great couple worth rooting for.
A writer achieves the proper chemistry by creating two fully-realized, empathetic, complex and compelling characters. On this level, The Break-Up fails big-time. Vaughn's lead is at least a certain recognizeable type of self-defensive guy w/dialogue that suits his funny motor-mouth persona. But Aniston, who ought to get a better written part, is stuck with a too-familiar, somewhat controlling Straight Gal (continuing her streak of "why can't she find another Good Girl to do?" disappointments).
Neither of them has enough to them to make them memorable and affecting. Jen, once she's on her "games I'll play to make him see the error of his ways" trajectory, keeps shooting herself in her nicely shorn feet and learning nothing; Vince, though he finally "gets it" in the third act, offers us next-to-no evidence that there could be more to him than what we've already seen.
And what's woefully missing in action are the essentials: what drew them together? what made the relationship work and them so wonderful to be around? We can only weep at the end of a Doomed Love movie if we connect with the lovers and feel the depth of what they've lost.
The same short-sightedness in character work that makes these two an often discomfiting variation on The Bickersons applies to the supports, such as Jen's female buddy (Joey Lauren Adams) and Vince's (Favreau). Both give terrible, not supportive advice, and at least one (Favreau) is totally contradicting himself in philosophy and personality by the last reel -- a fact never acknowledged by Vaughn, the friend he's steered wrong, or -- to place the blame squarely where it belongs, by muddle-headed screenwriters Vaughn, Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender.
Enough dissing. It's a watchable, well-made piece of work, and it's got a few funny moments (though not, as I wrongly predicted, the kind of all-out, over-the-top set-pieces you'd expect from a mainstream feature comedy). Still! Yet! To give these guys credit, finally, I must applaud the attempt. Clearly what the team was trying to do was to go past the usual end of lighter rom-com fare and investigate "what comes after happily ever after." That's a brave and bold and worthwhile thematic arena to explore within the parameters of this often too-safe genre.
Disappointment is, the makers of The Break-Up lacked the courage of their convictions. They didn't go into what's revealed about the complexities of a real relationship when the Really Awful Stuff goes down, and by skipping that, they weren't able to find the truly painful/profound laughs in The Horror of it all.
What we're left with, as a result, is a mis-sold movie that can't deliver on either front: it lacks the big laughs and feel-good thrills that a good date movie thrives on, and it doesn't pack the emotional depth-charges found in a good sad love story. Despite its occasional small pleasures, it's a feel-bad movie -- but what I feel most bad about is that considering the team, cast and attention paid, it coulda, woulda, shoulda been a contender.