Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Directed by Peyton Reed
To paraphrase Al Gore's laughable gaffe in An Inconvenient Truth: Peyton Reed's The Break-Up isn't just a political crisis, it's a moral crisis. To get at exactly what's wrong with this Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston dating comedy, you have to forget Gore's unconscious separation of politics from morality and be willing to recognize how storytelling in movies represents a political position on moral activity.
In Vaughn and Aniston's attempt at dealing with the tribulations of mismatched relationships, they first pose as particular social types-average, middle-class, white, urban Americans-in order to better sucker audiences who are eager to identify with movie stars. But then the stars fail to credibly dramatize the real life, class-defined habits and experiences of their characters. Have Vaughn and Aniston never seen Mike Leigh's minor masterwork, Career Girls? Their best hope is that you haven't. The prevarications in The Break-Up depend on hooking naive viewers who have been trained on the inanities of Nora Ephron/Rob Reiner movies.
So, this isn't just a political crisis when Vaughn, as Gary Grobowski, misrepresents Chicago's Polish, upwardly-mobile class (he's a tour guide working with Vincent D'Onofrio and Cole Hauser as part of his family's Three Brothers Tours business). Or when Aniston, as Brooke Meyers, portrays some kind of college-educated princess (she has an indulgent, super-liberal family and works for a neurotic gallerista played by Judy Davis).
It's also a moral-thus, aesthetic-crisis that Reed thinks Gary and Brooke's pairing is the stuff of romantic whimsy. This odd couple, a priss and a slob, meet at a White Sox baseball game, supposedly the locale of social intermixing, although that doesn't explain how these incompatible types would exchange anything beyond game trivia. Unlike the Farrelly brothers' Fever Pitch, the superb exploration of how culture alienates the sexes from each other, Gary and Brooke never again discuss sports, the interest that supposedly brought them together.
The Break-Up is not accurately described as a romantic comedy. Minus a sense of heartbreak, it's merely about the selfishness and bad choices Gary and Brooke make; enshrining each one's egotism and inability to compromise. This class-based grotesque is only mistaken for romance in a culture that refuses to understand itself.
The story recalls Sydney Pollack's 1973 The Way We Were which Pauline Kael described as "Katie and Hubbell have been breaking up ever since they got together." But The Way We Were, a lousy movie, makes a lousy template. Adapting his especially loutish form of frat-boy comedy to romance, Vaughn (who shares story credit) misses achieving even the pathos of Woody Allen's break-up benchmark, Annie Hall (1977). Add this misconceived crudeness to Reed's penchant for the artifices of Doris Day-style, '60s romantic comedies (Reed previously directed the abominable Rene Zellweger musical, Down With Love), and you've got a confluence of numbing inanities.
Maury Povich couldn't consciously design a movie to better falsify or ignore the complications of partnering and urban survival. The Break-Up has a half-campy subtext in which Gary and Brooke's post-feminist wrangling is intended to amuse. But these gags-sharing the same apartment while fighting with each other, parading neuroses and flaunting new hook-ups -betray the sensitivities that a new generation of romantic comedy practitioners ought to display. When Brooke declares, "I'm not spending one more second of this life with an insensitive prick!" there's privilege implicit in the term "this life" that remains unexamined, as does Gary's Neanderthal indifference. Reed's approach to such scenes is unacceptably glib. If he had the wit of the new Pet Shop Boys single, "I'm with Stupid," he might have provided insight about how sexual, emotional and political trade-offs sometimes pass for coupling.
After the huge success of the uproarious-then-shrill Wedding Crashers, Vaughn's humor threatens to establish a new lad-magazine standard for romantic comedy. The Break-Up is a bad omen for comedies that aren't funny and romances that are not poignant. Trouble was apparent with Reed's cliche credit sequence of snapshots depicting Gary and Brooke's doomed courtship.
"Who's taking the pictures?" I murmured to a colleague, who answered, "God."
Well, to judge by The Break-Up, that god-the god of fatuous, Friends-derived sitcoms-is dead.
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