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.