We all know couples like Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). After several years of dating, their relationship has gone sour, and now all they do is fight with each other. Gary runs a tour bus service with his brothers. Brooke works at an art gallery. They met at a Cubs game. Whether they were ever compatible in the first place is anyone’s guess. But now it’s clear that the relationship isn’t working, and they both want out.
It starts with the little things. She asks him to buy twelve lemons for a centerpiece she is making; he only buys three. Clearly he wasn’t listening. She nags him about it. The nagging only makes him tune her out even more. It is easier to watch Sports Center and play video games than it is to fully pay attention, so that is what he does. Another fight perfectly illustrates the difference between men and women. Brooke wants Gary to help her do the dishes. He tries to procrastinate. She gets annoyed.
Gary: “Fine, I’ll help you do the damn dishes.”
That right there, my friends, is men and women in a nutshell.
The Break-Up - which chronicles the deterioration of Gary and Brooke’s relationship – is bound to make many people uncomfortable. Some will experience that awkward, unpleasant feeling you get when you are stuck in a room with a couple who can’t stop arguing. Others will relate to the kind of fights the characters have. Ultimately, this is where the value of the film lies. There are plenty of movies showing how people get together; to have one that examines how they grow apart is much rarer.
Gary and Brooke live in a nice condo that he bought but she moved into and renovated. Neither of them wants to give it up, but their realtor friend Riggleman (Jason Bateman) convinces them to sell it and split the money. This means continuing to live together until the sale can be made. It is hard to break up with someone; to continue living with them afterward is, if this film is to be believed, certainly one of Dante’s circles of Hell.
One of the things that is most intriguing about The Break-Up is how it shows the cruelty that people can inflict upon one another as soon as love fades. It is as though love for another person is replaced by resentment because he/she failed to live up to all you hoped and dreamed they would be. Brooke begins bringing home faux dates just to make Gary jealous. He, on the other hand, puts a big old pool table in the middle of the living room (which she would never allow) and has drunken late-night poker parties. Brooke ostracizes him from their circle of friends, while Gary rudely accosts her brother.
Some of this is played for laughs, but some of it is also played more seriously. The point is that these characters get consumed with trying to prove themselves right by proving the other wrong. It’s clear, though, that they both still care for each other at some level. Brooke is the first to realize this. She makes an attempt to rekindle things by walking through the apartment naked and, later, by inviting Gary to a concert. His pride is too great to let go of, however. One senses that if he could just try a little harder, it would not be impossible to put things back together – and make them even better than they were before.
The Break-Up contains a lot of truths about men and women. It knows that many guys revert to “frat boy” mode as a way of healing from a broken heart. It knows that women want men to intuit things that they often aren’t capable of getting without road signs and a map. It knows that friends, while filled with good intentions, are not always the best givers of advice. This understanding of modern relationships helps the movie ride over a few elements that seem out of place (such as the broad comic subplot involving Brooke’s brother and his a capella singing group).
As the lead characters, Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are cast to perfection. He has often played the motor-mouthed, womanizing cad with overflowing charm. She specializes in playing lovable women who sometimes let feelings cloud logic and reason. Both play variations on the type here, which actually works to the movie’s advantage. We somehow feel like we’ve known Gary and Brooke for a long time. Vaughn and Aniston handle the laughs like pros, but also bring real emotion to the more dramatic scenes. A late-film confrontation (essentially the finality of the break-up) is particularly powerful.
The supporting cast is very strong, as it includes Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) as Brooke’s best friend, Bateman and Jon Favreau as Gary’s buddies, and Vincent D’Onofrio and Cole Hauser as his brothers. John Michael Higgins (as the brother) and Judy Davis (as the gallery owner) are enjoyable, even if their characters sometimes feel like they belong in another movie.
I wish that some of the extraneous elements had been trimmed away, and the last scene (allegedly re-filmed after test audiences nixed the original) feels kind of tacked-on. That said, The Break-Up is certainly worth seeing. Neil Sedaka famously sang that breaking up is hard to do. Here’s a movie that understands that fact and isn’t afraid to put the ugly truth up on screen.
( out of four)
The Break-Up is rated PG-13 for sexual content, some nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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