WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: Formerly loving partners Gary and Brooke have lost that loving feeling, but their Chicago condo is so nice that neither is willing to leave. A battle of wits ensues with Gary asserting his blokish masculinity and Brooke her sexiness, their respective friends backing them all the way; but when push comes to shove, do they really want to hurt each other?
Hey! You know how much fun it is to break up acrimoniously with someone you used to love? You’ve ever had the enjoyment of watching other people arguing bitterly at close quarters? Well, rejoice, because Vince Vaughn and friends have bottled that fun and put it into a film, just for you.
Vince Vaughn is Gary, one of three brothers who operate a tour bus around Chicago. Though Gary’s customers find him a hoot, his elder brother Dennis (Vincent D’Onofrio) is tearing his hair out because Gary can’t get his act together sufficiently to sort out his logs, halting any progress towards the brothers’ dream of running tours by land, air and sea. Gary also takes this attitude towards his relationship with Brooke (Jennifer Aniston), a salesperson at the grand gallery owned by kooky artist Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis), so when Brooke asks for help in organising and clearing up a dinner party for their families, all Gary cares about is watching baseball.
This is the last straw for Brooke and she ends the relationship, but they both own the condo and neither is willing to leave. Taking over the living room, Gary gets his friends over to play pool, including aggressive meathead Johnny ‘O’ (Jon Favreau); while Brooke attempts to get on with her life and make her ex jealous, her friend Addie (Joey Lauren Adams) setting her up on dates, although these don’t quite work out as she anticipates. Gary, meanwhile, retaliates by organising a wild strip poker night. All Brooke really wants is for Gary to appreciate her and pull his weight around the house: but it’s unthinkable that they can mend their broken relationship before the condo is sold, forcing them to go their separate ways.
Maybe it was marketing, or perhaps the choice of leads mistakenly lead me into thinking this was a romantic comedy along the lines of When Harry Met Sally (they play Pictionary here too) or something blacker like Wars of the Roses. Whether the fault is mine or not, it highlights the major flaw with The Break-Up: it’s no fun. As hinted at above, the end of a relationship is often filled with bitterness and recrimination, and while Brooke and Gary’s arguments bring this vividly to life, it’s not something the cinema-going public necessarily wants to see (my own thought was ‘I’ve gone through quite enough domestic strife in my life to need any made up for my entertainment,’ I would imagine quite a common sentiment). Were these two people we had come to know intimately the position might be different, but the only evidence we have that they were ever happy comes from still photographs under the opening credits, and nowhere in the film is there much sign of love behind the tears.
What you actually have is Vaughn being aggressive, lazy and boorish, Aniston high-maintenance (you wouldn’t bet on them getting past a second date): neither is much of a stretch for the actors, and their domestic dramas fail to convince or engage. It’s telling that Favreau has lines telling Vaughn how much fun he is – ‘You’re a blast’ – but Vaughn doesn’t exhibit much, if any, of this fun behaviour himself. In truth, Vaughn is a contemptuous, insincere presence who doesn’t do much except wear the smirk of a man who knows he’s getting well paid*. When he (predictably) becomes a changed man at the end of the film – he loses weight and has a shave! – the change rings completely false and the writing feels lazy; Brooke, surprise surprise, goes travelling to find herself before they bump into each other and size each other up in a complete non-event of an ending.
Sadly, there’s not much relief to be gained from The Break-Up’s secondary characters either. Although Favreau’s constantly threatening character is quite good fun, Gary’s younger brother Lupus (Cole Hauser) is a deeply annoying sex pest, and the usually excellent John Michael Higgins is completely wasted as Brooke’s camp singing sibling, Richard. Other parts, such as those of Addie, Marilyn, or Justin Long’s ineffectual Christopher, are the sketchiest of drawings designed to do little more than advance the story; that these people are introduced and then disappear, often never to be mentioned again, shows a serious lack of thought and care.
Essentially, the viewer never really believes in the lives of Brooke and Gary, their friends or their hang-ups about lemons, washing-up and the ballet, so is left looking at two actors shouting at each other and spotting the procession of product placements (EA Sports, Pepsi, Budweiser). This commercialism, though crass, is consistent with a film whose central message seems to be that love comes and love goes, but good real estate is worth fighting for.
Almost nothing could induce me into watching The Break-Up a second time. A cynical vehicle for Vaughn (story co-writer/producer/star), it’s a film that oozes insincerity and provides nothing in the way of emotional involvement, drama or humour (unless you find hilarity in the idea of Aniston walking to the fridge). That said, the director makes Chicago look nice. I would say that I’m loath to go for fear of meeting any of the irritating characters portrayed in the film, but as none of them were remotely true to life, I think I’d be quite safe.
NOTE: This may sound harsh but it’s not actually meant as a criticism. There are roles – specifically in Swingers, but in cameo appearances too – where this persona is perfect and thoroughly enjoyable. But trying to make him a good guy deep down doesn’t work at all.