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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Break-Up (review)

American Nightmare

You’ve seen the TV ad, surely, in which Jennifer Aniston — who for some bizarre reason has come to represent an American “everywoman” — is arguing with Vince Vaughn — who is apparently the embodiment of a “regular guy” — about doing the dishes. She wants him to “want to do the dishes,” and he’s all, “Why would I want to do the dishes?” This is meant to be something Insightful and Profound about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus and so we’re all fucked but must put up with the nonsense anyway.

But anyone, male or female, with half a brain, is with Vaughn in this scene: Who the hell wants to do the dishes? You want to take Aniston aside and say, “Look, honey, tell Vince it’s not like you want to do the dishes either, but they have to be done. But you gotta compromise, too, sweetie — if he says he’ll help you with them in the morning but you’re gonna insist they must be done tonight because you don’t like waking up to a dirty kitchen, well, then, maybe it’s time to take a good hard look at what a household tyrant you’re turning in to.”
And then you realize you’re playing relationship counselor to a couple of fictional characters who are theoretically there to entertain you, not to piss you off, and then you’re pissed off even more. Because in a sane world, The Break-Up would be an illustration of what Katharine Hepburn said about men and women, that they should live next door to each other and visit once in a while. She wants the dishes done before bed? Fine. He wants to do nothing but play videogames when he gets home? Fine. Live next door, get together for sex once in a while, and then go home. But instead, this is sentimental claptrap about maintaining a status quo, no matter how unpleasant or painful or even unnatural that status quo is. Maybe, I dunno, it’s unreasonable to expect a man and woman to live together for more than the couple of years it takes to raise a child to the point at which it can run away from a lion on its own. But this is not the kind of movie to suggest that. Hollywood movies do not rock the boat — they tell you that the boat is fine and good and normal and correct, and that if you want to rock it there’s something wrong with you.

And so we get The Break-Up, which is supposed to be one of those “truthful” romantic “dramedies” about “relationships,” but is in fact depressing as hell because you know people will believe it is honest and representative of the only options available to us, that either we have to live miserably together or live miserably alone. This is a deeply conservative movie, not conservative in a political way but conservative in a Ward-and-June-Cleaver kind of way that tells us that the only “real” life is one in which a man and woman are jointly paying off a mortgage.

Yeah, and that’s the real kicker of The Break-Up, that Chicago tour guide Gary Grobowski (Vaughn: Wedding Crashers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and art dealer Brooke Meyers (Aniston: Derailed, Along Came Polly) would continue living together even after they’ve broken up as a couple because they got an amazing deal on an amazing condo. I mean, sure, of course it’s nice to have a pleasant place to live, but is it worth putting up with someone you can’t stand in order to do so? It’s one of the most pathetic things I can imagine, that these people would sacrifice personal happiness because of the projected appreciation on an investment.

The subtext is meant to be, Oh, they’re really still crazy in love, these kids, and the mortgage thing is just a symptom of that. Maybe. But the condo is the only thing either of them really seems to care about. They certainly don’t seem genuinely in love with each other, though they do get awfully cheesed off about the washing-the-dishes thing. Neither of them is passionate about anything at all, really, except possibly the apartment. Each of them is surrounded by people who are incandescent and alive and living unconventional lives their own way: Gary has his brother, Dennis (Vincent D’Onofrio: The Salton Sea, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), who has grand dreams for the sightseeing company they run; Brooke has Christopher (Justin Long: Herbie: Fully Loaded, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), the lively receptionist at the gallery where she works, as well as gallery owner Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis), who’s more her own woman that Brooke could ever hope to be. Of course, wacky sidekick characters are a tired cliché of romantic comedies, and some of them here — like Christopher and Brooke’s brother, Richard (John Michael Higgins: Fun with Dick & Jane, Blade: Trinity) — are tiresome and obvious caricatures of flamboyant gays who are meant to be funny. But even they are far more interesting people than Gary and Brooke, as if to suggest that coloring outside the lines may be fine for other people, for weird people, but normal, decent folk live by the “rules.”

And maybe that’s a recipe for unhappiness. So be it. You can’t escape it, not unless you want to be some kind of arty and/or fag freak. And who’d want that? No one normal and decent, that’s for sure.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexual content, some nudity and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • (Spoiler alert)

    May I respectfully disagree? What I got out of the movie is that this particular couple does not, and did not, belong together. I did NOT draw any generalized conclusions, other than this is how disgreements tend to tear down relationships when you drag old stuff into the current argument. These two had some feelings for each other (we assume, since they skipped right over the courtship), but they were both immature enough to not realize how they were destroying what they had until it was too late.

    What I enjoyed about the movie is that they did not fall into the usual Hollywood trap of pretending two ill-suited for each other people belong together at the end. This script at least had the honesty to point out that some couples are not right for each other. Even when portrayed by two stars.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    SPOILER

    Are you kidding? The tacked-on focus-grouped ending is meant to imply that they will get back together again.

  • Hmm…I didn’t read it that way. I read it that they had grown from their experiences, still weren’t right for each other, but could now be mature about the past while they went on their separate ways.

    I’m sure you’re right about their intentions, however, and I can see what you mean. But that isn’t what I thought when I saw that scene.

    I do know the entire theatre erupted in annoyed conversation as soon as the credits began to roll, and I laughed to myself that they wanted them to get together and I was glad that they weren’t getting together. I think the theatre didn’t get the tacked-on message either because I overheard a number of annoyed people afterward complaining that they didn’t get together.

    Still, I understand your point of view and always enjoy your reviews and perspective. I just wanted to share with you that I got a different message from the film.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    I can appreciate that a film can inspire multiple interpretations, this one perhaps more than many. I know I’m a crank and that lots of people don’t share my misanthropy… :->

  • It’s interesting to note how Anniston and Vaughn, while doing press, made sure to mention Anniston’s nude scene. This is quite deliberate because there is a creepy but respectably sized demographic that will show up on opening weekend specifically to see Anniston’s bare ass. They don’t have the willpower to wait for the scene to end up on the internet (in just a few days, I’m sure).

    This particular demographic is often sought to shore up the box office of otherwise uninteresting movies.

  • Drave

    [SPOILER ALERT]
    My interpretation of the last scene is not at all that they were going to get back together. I felt like the entire scene was radiating awkwardness, like that first time you bump into an ex after being apart from each other a long time. You are far enough from the pain of the break-up that the wounds have mostly healed, and you are able to be friendly to each other, and even make the obligatory gestures toward maintaining a friendship, but there is still a big part of you inside that is going “Oh god oh god oh god get me out of here this is over and I don’t want to get hurt again!” That is what I saw when I looked at that scene. They were both happier after breaking up, and they were glad to see each other succeed, but they were both sort of frantically looking for the exit. The wink was pure bravado, trying to hide the vulnerability. I guess I had a radically different reaction to the movie than you did, which is rare, but not unheard of. *grin*

    My absolute favorite thing about the movie was that they did NOT get back together. After Vaughn spills all of the standard Hollywood stuff about how much he has learned, and basically tells Aniston everything she has been wanting to hear from day one, and she says she doesn’t feel the same way anymore. I absolutely LOVED that. It made the movie for me. Her response of “I don’t have anything left to give.” The crowd I saw it with was furious, because they were expecting the tearful forgiveness and making up that a director who isn’t Peyton Reed might have given them. I just sat there grinning, because what happened was exactly what I thought would have happened in real life. That is very rare in movies about relationships.

    I don’t know. I saw a lot of truth in this movie. The horrible critical backlash has really caught me by surprise. I can’t help but wonder if the way they are marketing it hasn’t been a double-edged sword. All of the ads make it look like a somewhat juvenile romantic comedy, which, quite frankly, is the only way they were going to put butts in seats for this one. (Star power isn’t enough of a draw for this kind of movie during blockbuster season.) The misleading marketing is the reason the movie has made as much as it has, but it is also the reason that the movie is pissing a lot of people off. They go in expecting a date movie, and I really didn’t see it as one. Of course, knowing who the director was, I went in expecting to find more levels to the story than in the average Vince Vaughn movie, so maybe it’s not surprising that I found them. It is just as likely that I created them myself, I suppose! Art is what you make of it, right?

    To me, it almost came off as using the tools/framework of the romantic comedy in a protest against date movie cliches, much the same way as Down With Love was (in part) a protest against the misogynistic Hollywood version of feminism, told within the framework of the almost laughably anachronistic romances of the era it takes place in. I definitely see where you are coming from, and a lot of people I know who have seen it agree with you. It really amazes me how many different ways people can be affected by the same movie. Of course, it also amazes me that at least half the people I’ve talked to thought X3 was really good.

    As a random side note, the end of the movie, from Vaughn’s declaration of love in the last act, all the way to the credits, actually reminded me of one of my favorite songs; “Fly” by Moxy Früvous.

  • [SPOILERS — But hey, if you are still reading this thread, what are you thinking if you haven’t seen the movie?]

    Drave, I had the same reaction to that “I don’t feel it any more” scene. It was real, and very, very un-Hollywood. I also liked the way they allowed Vaughn to have a couple of scenes where he was angrily yelling without a joke in sight. The first time it happened, some in the audience snickered as if they are so primed to laugh at any long speech Vaughn makes they did it out of conditioning. The next time it happened, silence.

    I agree, the ads are deceptive. But hey, the title is accurate!

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “I just sat there grinning, because what happened was exactly what I thought would have happened in real life. That is very rare in movies about relationships.”

    That’s true. But there wasn’t enough “real life” before this moment. They don’t feel like real people. Maybe there are moments of, I dunno what to call it: pretend reality. Cardboard characters spouting something that by chance happens to be true.

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