A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE BREAK UP
2006, PG-13, 109 mins.
Gary Grobowski: Vince Vaughn / Brooke Meyers: Jennifer Aniston
/ Addie: Joey Lauren Adams / Lupus Grobowski: Cole Hauser / Johnny O: Jon Favreau
/ Riggleman: Jason Bateman / Marilyn Dean: Judy Davis / Richard Meyers: John Michael Higgins
/ Dennis Grobowski: Vincent D'Onofrio / Wendy Meyers: Ann-Margret
There is a scene very early on in THE BREAK UP that does a virtuoso job of encapsulating the essence of the troubled male/female relationship. Gary (Vince Vaughn) has just come home to his Chicago high-rise condo after a long, hard day at work. All he wants to do is unwind for a few minutes (in “guy time” that could be a half hour or so), lay on the couch, watch a little bit of TV, and maybe follow that with a nice video game to carve off the edge. Some louts use alcohol to chill out after a particularly grueling day; Gary would much rather murder pixelized people vicariously through GRAND THEFT AUTO.
His girlfriend, Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) shares his condo with him. She has other ideas for the evening. She has been slaving away to make the perfect dinner ensemble for both her parents and – hopefully – her future in-laws. She too is tired and a bit flabbergasted by the thought of not having everything just right for the evening. She also has felt the grind of the day’s activities, so much so that she only hopes that when Gary comes home that he will be willing to assist her with ensuring that the evening goes off without a hitch.
This is where things go a bit south for the two. He comes home with the lemons that she requested, but he failed to bring the appropriate number. As he throws himself on the couch the exasperated Brooke asks him politely why he only brought home three lemons. Of course, he bought what he thought was an acceptable number. He relays to her that he thought that three was all she needed. This only serves to extrapolate more frustration from Brooke. “I wanted twelve lemons,” she pleads, “not three.” Gary then asks, “Why do you need twelve?” She matter-of-factly responds, “Because I wanted to make a twelve lemon centerpiece.” Gary thinks that her request and needs are asinine. “So, no one's even going to eat these lemons? You're suggesting to me these are just show lemons?”
Just when you thought that a matter as seemingly silly and innocuous as lemons could not boil over more terribly, things get even worse for the two. As he tries to unwind she challenges him with why he does not want to help with setting the table. He uses his quick wits and tells her that he would not want to ruin her perfectly placed table she started. “None of Michelangelo’s helpers did the 16th Chapel, and look at it…it’s a masterpiece!” His ignorance towards her tastes (she is an art dealer) only further angers her. “It’s the Sistine Chapel,” she screams back at him.
Things get worse. When she asks him why he can’t help with the prepping of the evening, he can’t see things her way. All he wants to do is relax after a physically and emotionally trying day at work. Not too much to ask, I think. However, all Brooke wants out of her man is for him to get up off of the couch and assist her with the supper that she has been dealing with for hours. Not too much to ask for either, I think. Here’s the crux of their escalating, no-holds-barred verbal fisticuffs - Gary can’t seem to understand why she will not allow him a bit of breathing room for him to settle down after his tiresome day (John Grey - in is interesting book MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS - said that men often want to recoil, spend time in their cave and – when they are ready – will return as loving and supportive as ever). Brooke is beside herself. She can’t understand why Gary can’t lift a finger to help her with what she sees is an important evening with family (Grey also points out that women want to feel significant and appreciated for what they do). When she lashes out at him, “For once I want you to want to do the dishes,” he dryly responds, “Why in the hell would I want to do the dishes!”
This small – but crucial – opening moment in the film is difficult to watch. Their incessant bickering and unwillingness to come to a mutual agreement and understanding on anything will leave many viewers feeling increasingly upset and perturbed. It sure is hard to watch a couple emotionally berate one another and see their once loving rapport disintegrate before our eyes. Yet, THE BREAK UP is a film that deserves some modest comparisons with ANNIE HALL in the sense that it knows impeccably what makes both men and women tick in a relationship. As far as romantic dramadies go, Peyton Reed’s exploration of the rise and fall of a relationship is surprisingly true, frank, even handed, insightful, and honest, more so than many other similar witless genre films.
The trailers for the film offer up glimpses that the film will degenerate into more overwhelming farcical territory. Yet, THE BREAK UP is too layered, too balanced, and too intelligent to take the road most traveled approach. It delicately balances hearty and big laughs with a decent amount of sensitivity that strikes an emotional cord. The comedy in many scenes comes from the deeper truths that the screenplay and performances bring out to the forefront. There is a striking fairness and veracity to the material here, which is incredibly refreshing. It’s more frank and uncompromising than your typical romantic film going outing. For that, the film deserves serious accolades.
One reason it works so well is in terms of how articulate and intuitive it is at pinpointing the human condition. This is a more serious film than many will otherwise expect. It wisely understands how – when love fades in a relationship – that the worst aspects of people are released. This is further perpetuated in the way people do and say unreasonably and unattainably cruel things to one another. Imagine CLOSER morphed with any Rock Hudson/Doris Day film and you kind of have the idea with THE BREAK UP. It is an unusual combination, to be sure, but the results speak for themselves. THE BREAK UP emerges as a revisionist romantic comedy, especially since it comes in the wake of so many previous formulas that progress with an astonishing predictability.
Again, the key to the film is its understanding of men and women. Now, the film never really takes sides (although I initially felt more sympathy for Brooke than Gary), but it grows to the point where you begin to see things from both of their perspectives. More than anything, the film highlights two fundamental truths about male/female relationships. First, men oftentimes have no clue what women want out of them. Second, women have no clue that men have no clue what they want out of them. Being a man, I know that we simply are not good with round about requests and instructions from women. When a woman tells us they would like us to pick up some lemons on the way home, we don’t know that they want twelve exactly. To a woman, when they ask men to simply pick up some lemons, they think that the man will indeed pick up twelve. See what I mean?
Both sexes have their shortcomings with identifying and comprehending the other's issues. THE BREAK UP knows this where other films don’t. Even while watching the film I could sense my own insecurities and hang-ups. Sometimes, I can’t read between the lines of a woman’s request. Gary is very much guilty of this as well. He is a likeable slob. He loves the Cubs, his big screen TV, and video games. He can’t understand why Brooke does not see things his way. I mean – dammit – he just wants a bit of me-time after work. However, his unwillingness to take the initiative to help her with supper makes him a bit of a pig-headed loser to Brooke.
Yet, the screenplay does not make Brooke completely innocent either. Yes, Gary does not know that the Sistine Chapel is not the 16th Chapel and that he does not seem genuinely interested in her world. However, the same could apply to Brooke. Her faults are much like Gary’s; she does not seem interested in his world either. Gary thinks a twelve lemon centerpiece is idiotic. Brooke things video games and sports are idiotic. Gary rightfully thinks that Brooke is too domineering and unsupportive. Brooke thinks that Gary is too insensitive and unsupportive. Their own mutual ignorance towards their own needs erupts….in mean ways.
Problems arise when they realize that they both own an equal share of the condo. Gary refuses to leave, as does Brooke. If matters could not get any direr, the two decide to stay and continue to make their lives even more miserable. Both hatch plans to make the other jealous, realize their stupid ways, and jump back into the relationship. Brooke tries to invite over hunky new dates to drive Gary mad. One funny scene, however, demonstrates another truth about men. When her date comes over and sees Gary enjoying his Play Station, he joins in gleefully. After awhile, with Brooke waiting impatiently to leave, the date asks for a few more minutes to finish his game with Gary. If chocolate is preferable to sex for many women (at least that is what some magazine polls state) then video games are the male equivalent to chocolate.
Gary has his own plans to make Brooke envious. His plan is a bit more devious. He and his buddies (played by Jon Favreau and Jason Bateman) hire prostitutes to come over and play strip Texas Hold ‘Em. Call me crazy, but this is the least likely scheme to make a women want to come back you. I would also say “ditto” to Brooke’s schemes with dating other men. These scenes are a few of the weak spots in the film. They ring a bit false. The film also suffers from a bit of a pacing problem in a few key areas. An early dinner scene involving what appears to be Brooke’s closeted gay brother goes on for what seems like forever. There is another pointless scene where she goes (on the advice of her boss) to get a vital area of her anatomy waxed. Her plan is to wander around the condo naked and turn Gary into a helpless lapdog. Huh? I am assuming that Gary has seen Brooke naked before. He plan here also seems silly in hindsight.
Alas, it is - for the most part - the cunning writing and the remarkably effective performances that make the film click. Jennifer Anniston finds every right note as a grieving girlfriend looking for answers. She is really good at playing for broad laughs and heartfelt sentiment (during the movie's more tender scenes, she is more than believable; you feel that she’s in pain). Vaughn is…well…pure Vaughn in the film. He has that sort of rapid fire, assured, and dizzying logic to his acerbic rants. No one can fire off a monologue with such lightning speed (and with hilarious results) like him. After he is literally beaten up by Brooke’s brother in one scene, Gary is not content with saying, “He didn’t beat me up.” No, sir. He elaborates by stating, “There's a really big gap between getting your ass kicked and having a dancing, singing sprite fool you with trickery and then strike your throat before you know that you're even in a fight.” That’s the Vaughnian touch, and he plays his role of Gary with a level of sharp witted and acid tongued wit that we expect him to. His few scenes with Favreau are a joy. They hearken back to their brilliantly hilarious performances and chemistry in SWINGERS and the underrated MADE. Make no mistake about it, both of them together again is so "money".
More than anything, Vaughn and Anniston have real and palpable chemistry (or non-chemistry?). They feel like a real couple and their relationship woes have an understated truthfulness. The film does utilize some of the genre’s more routine conventions (it has a "meet cute", their courtship, and it does show the disintegration of their relationship). Yet, it goes beyond those conventions and does not feel slavish to them. I guess the thing I enjoyed the most about it was how it shuns these conventions of the genre. Just when you think it's going one place it doesn't. Reconciling sure is easy in the movies when you have a writer telling characters that they need to. THE BREAK UP understands that real relationships are not like movie relationships. It's invigorating to see a genre film like this stand behind its characters with conviction and not have parade around to an inevitable "happy" conclusion. The ending of the film may startle you with its lack of closure. Then again, relationships never rebound cleanly or easily.
Whereas some romantic comedies rely on dumb gimmicks and ridiculous, half baked set-ups, THE BREAK UP is a revelation in the sense that it focuses more on well drawn characters, good writing, and a willingness to explore genuine human emotions alongside the comical moments. Instead of telling a story ripe with clichés and utter obviousness, the film stays well grounded in the real world. Critics have unfairly and unfavorably compared this film to THE WAR OF THE ROSES. That is a bit unfair (that battle of the sexes was decidedly a dark and macabre black comedy; THE BREAK UP is more rooted in reality). Others have taken exception with the fact that Gary and Brooke are so incompatible that you don’t want to see them together at the end. But, maybe that’s the point. In an age when countless films take great pains to force audiences to like the on-screen couples and want them to get back together as quickly as possible, THE BREAK UP has a different agenda. It would rather try to illustrate – when all is said and done – that there are times when two people should not be together. That’s why it rings a bit truer and digs a bit deeper.