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Break-Up, The (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 June 2006
“The Break Up” is hard to classify; it’s largely a comedy, but there’s a lot of dramatic material, too. The shifts in tone are extremely well handled by the cast and director Peyton Reed; the audience shifts gears without even realizing it. It’s a very good example of whatever it is, tender, tough, funny, wise and wistful, sometimes all at the same time. There’s really very little story; it’s more a series of incidents, each built on the one before. The ending it reaches is logical but perhaps not what most in the audience expected—or perhaps even wanted.

But the movie is good enough to semi-thwart audience expectations and yet send them out of the theater happy to have seen this story. Yes, it’s hot tabloid stuff right now because the two leading actors developed a romance while the film was in production, but the movie doesn’t need that kind of help.

It’s set in Chicago but could be anywhere. Before the credits, Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) have a meet-cute encounter at Wrigley Field. Under the credits, their romance is told in a series of snapshots, concluding a year or so later when they’re living together in a handsome condo they own together.

Gary is the chief guide for a tour-Chicago company he owns with his brothers, Lupus (Cole Hauser) and Dennis (Vincent D’Onofrio, who even resembles Vaughn). Brooke works for demanding, slightly ditzy but hard-edged art gallery owner Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis).

Brooke is annoyed when Gary doesn’t help her enough when they host a dinner party for both sets of in-laws. (Former movie queen Ann-Margret appears to good effect as Brooke’s mother.) Gary has to deal with Brooke’s brother Richard (John Michael Higgins), who not only is completely unflappable, but wildly enthusiastic about his a cappella singing group and insists on giving a demonstration.

After their guests leave, Brooke and Gary almost helplessly plunge into an argument, the kind in which very final statements happen without anyone really wanting them to. Brooke thinks that by claiming that their relationship is “over,” she’ll spur Gary to correct his faults. (And he has them.) It’s the kind of game that couples often play, but trouble arises when one of the players doesn’t know the rules—and just as he is blind to his own faults, Gary is unaware of the rules of this game.
He fights back in an overstated way—he moves their dinner table out and installs his long-dreamed-of pool table. His best friend, bartender Johnny O (Jon Favreau, Vaughn’s longtime friend, director of “Swingers’), thinks this is playing fair; real estate dealer Riggleman (Jason Bateman) considers himself a friend of both, and is unsure of how to act. After each step in the escalating quarrel, Brooke talks things over with her best friend Maddie (Joey Lauren Adams), who’s happily-enough married herself, with kids, and tends to live a bit more vicariously through Brooke than she really should. Just as Johnny does with Gary, Addie encourages Brooke to more and more powerful “statements.”

It doesn’t help when Brooke and Gary get into an argument over Pictionary in front of all their friends—some of whom think nothing of it—but Brooke makes the biggest blunder when she forces Gary out of their small bowling team. (Exhaustively shown in trailers.) She thinks it’s just another lesson for Gary; he thinks she’s declaring their relationship finished.

And so it goes, back and forth, each taking increasingly extreme steps that they really don’t want to make, but feel they’ve been forced into it by the other—and, though they don’t recognize this, by their friends. The friends mean well, but they don’t always see what’s best for Gary or for Brooke; they’re too busy seeing themselves in all of this.

There’s a lot of funny stuff throughout the movie, scripted by Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender, who co-wrote the story with Vaughn. Gary’s a great big boy, a good tour guide but oblivious to his older brother Dennis’ demands for better record keeping. Younger brother Lupus (where did THAT come from?) is a kind of sexual predator and encourages Gary to follow suit, but Lupus ignores the fact that he constantly strikes out. Gary pays little attention to Brooke’s work or areas of interest; he refers to Michelangelo’s work on “The Sixteenth Chapel,” and ignores Brooke’s burgeoning art collection.

He also doesn’t understand what point Brooke is trying to make when she explains “I don’t want you to do the dishes, I want you to WANT to do the dishes.” To him, this makes no sense. To her, it’s a very clear explanation of one area of her frustration—but she also try to help Gary to understand her more clearly. She’s too deeply involved in her games; HIS games consist mostly of those played on TV sets, whether video games, football or other sports, he loves to curl up on the couch and bliss out while Brooke stands there seething.

Eventually, Brooke is ready to try almost anything that will get Gary to react—but she miscalculates almost everything. Marilyn Dean suggests she visit Marilyn’s “personal” body waxer and get a “Telly Savalas.” It isn’t her head that ends up bald, but the move mystifies Gary, leads to nothing.

As these battles continue, the script and director keep us aware that if HE would just do this or SHE would just do that, things would probably work out. Addie or Johnny could have helped—Favreau has a very good scene toward the end in which he patiently explains to Gary that everyone likes him, sure, but everyone always ends up doing what GARY wants to do. When Johnny asks Gary what was the last time he did something that someone else—doesn’t matter who—wanted to do? Johnny should have said this earlier, but he didn’t.

“The Break Up” is remarkably wise, even courageous in its examination of the inner workings of a relationship on the rocks. It seems almost geared to Jennifer Aniston’s clear, realistic style; it’s honest, it’s funny and it’s all too believable. It will be the rare couple who, on seeing this movie, doesn’t recognize parts of their own relationship. Few movies have taken the route this one does, and it’s a better movie for it.

Technically, “The Break Up” is a standard, polished Hollywood production, well but not exceptionally photographed; the score, which includes some songs, is sensitive and appropriate. The supporting cast is remarkably good. D’Onofrio is the “suit” of the three brothers, with his feet on the grounds and his head in the balance books; he’s a bit uptight, a bit too focused on the money—but he also knows that Gary is the soul of their tour company, the reason the business exists at all. But he’s still driven to frustration by Gary’s immaturity.

Vaughn supposedly helped come up with this story in order to give himself an acting role that would expand his range, requiring him to play things a bit differently than usual for him. Since I’ve never really doubted his ability to do almost anything he’s physically suited for (another way D’Onofrio is like him), this movie wasn’t news to me. He’s carved out his own very specific area of comedy, but he never seemed limited to that; here, he does that and he does more things. And he does them well.

Aniston seems to have a limited range as an actress—at least nothing I’ve seen her in has been outside a limited range—but like many Hollywood stars, within that range—realistic, self-aware comedy—she’s extremely good. Her Brooke is completely believable, and remains likeable even as we see she’s making one mistake after another.

This probably wouldn’t make a good first-date (or even, as Variety suggested, LAST-date) movie, but for couples who known how difficult it can be running really fast to stay in the same place emotionally, “The Break Up” expresses a lot of important truths—and is both funny and sad while doing so.

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