starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, Joey Lauren Adams, Ann-Margret
screenplay by Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender
directed by Peyton Reed
by Walter Chaw Vince Vaughn can never seem sincere, only dazed and slack, making his proto-slob Gary in Peyton Reed's infernal The Break-Up an odd object of desire for art gallery receptionist Brooke--or he would be if Brooke weren't played by vanilla pudding Jennifer Aniston. The problem with the picture is that it's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (or the more-often-invoked Scenes from a Marriage)--with healthy doses of Swingers and The 40 Year Old Virgin to confuse the rancor--played by one-note actors who demonstrate not a soupçon of chemistry, thereby engendering zero rooting interest in their counterparts' reunion. (The fact that the two stars appear to have found love off camera regardless suggests the Proof of Life Effect for the anti-romcom set.) You have to respect a picture that sports at least three or four scenes straight out of Hell and has the good sense at one point to mention it in so many words, like when Brooke comes home to find Gary engaged in some weird bacchanal, the two exchanging a long wordless look across the wasteland as the world comes to an end. But there's so little presence demonstrated by either of the principals that the movie finally feels disconnected and inconsequential.
It's something of a tradition in reviewing these films to point out the repugnantly fey gay comic relief (such as Brooke's brother Richard (John Michael Higgins) and co-worker Christopher (Justin Long)), and to speculate aloud how much better a picture it would have been were one of the sidekicks the main attraction, but no: Although the gay comic relief is indeed repugnant and fey, none of The Break-Up's characters are remotely interesting. It's a remarkable thing to discover about a film that boasts an ancillary cast of people like Ann Margaret, Vincent D'Onofrio, Judy Davis, and Jason Bateman, each of whom is asked to play a minute or two of retrograde shtick before slinking off to wherever it is that bad workshop-plot shivs go to wither. (The central joke revolving around closeted Richard's flaming gayness appears to be that he's able to beat the shit out of Gary, which, in the broad scheme of things, is paternalistic bigotry rather than the other kind; in any case, Richard is summarily discarded once he's served his slapstick purpose.) This lack of character depth is germane to the conversation because it points to a holistic emptiness that robs The Break-Up's darkest moments of insight and its lighter moments of revelation.
The Break-Up is anti-intellectual in a way that another film a little bit like it, Scorsese's After Hours, never was (an art gallery patron says he's loathe to pay money for something he could have painted himself--an odd point upon which to hang a barb when the truth is that most of the theoretical fans of this picture could also have directed it themselves), making a hero out of Gary before asking him to change to conform to some other idea of perfection. Brooke, on the other hand, is an arbitrarily mercurial doormat: in love with Gary only until the screenplay decides she's not and identified almost entirely by her haircut at the end--just as the actress who plays her has been for much of her career. Aniston's greatest skill is apparently being the tabula rasa upon which dim bulbs project their thoughts.
The Break-Up's best moments are the aforementioned bacchanal, another in which Lupus (Cole Hauser), Gary's appropriately lupine brother, tries to pick up two women by describing a bizarre bondage/torture scenario, and a bit where best friend Johnny (Jon Favreau) can't be talked out of killing an innocent man out of macho kinship to Gary. The film is actually quite horrifying--it's not a comedy, really, not the least because it's not terribly funny. Still, what really bites is that the picture seems a missed opportunity. It isn't without insight, after all, into how men and women sometimes spawn something vile in the alchemy between them, but it reserves its ultimate horror for that moment where it wraps everything up with a wink and a shrug. The Break-Up is interesting solely because it's one of the starker examples of how neutered our culture has become. If only it had the courage to be as full of piss as it wants to be. Originally published: June 2, 2006.