It's a pity that The Break-Up is being sold mostly on the are-they-or-aren't-they media furor around stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. The press around the film is trading heavily on Aniston's public perception as America's Sweetheart (with a top-seated, very public placement in the "Brokenhearted" division) and Vaughn's nifty, tabloid-ready story arc as the good-but-bad-boy who can help her live again. It's not just that this perception is coated in the thin, cold sheen of the clammy, whispered air of schoolyard gossip; it's also that it does disservice to a nicely-made, nicely executed romantic comedy with a strong script and great supporting cast. The Break-Up isn't going to go into the pantheon of romantic comedies alongside The Apartment or Annie Hall, but it deserves -- and earns the right -- to be seen as something, anything other than just more grist for the dark satanic mills of the gossip-industrial complex.
Brooke (Aniston) and Gary (Vaughn) meet cute within the first five minutes of The Break-Up; we spend the rest of the film watching them un-meet cute, squabbling and sharing as they both insist on occupying the same condo. Some will suggest that The Break-Up lacks realism; to this I can only say "Good." I do not wish to go into a theater in the summer and watch the reality of a relationship ending any more than I would want to go into a theater in the summer and watch the reality of a cruise ship turning upside down or the reality of South Seas piracy. Yes, The Break-Up is fake; but The Break-Up is funny, and it also has a surprisingly sincere heart.
Brooke and Gary have what looks like a real relationship -- laughter, warmth, affection ... and long-standing difficulties and disagreements. And after a family dinner that capped off a long day, everything just melts down -- Brooke and Gary have one of those minor squabbles that somehow manages to incorporate every problem in their relationship in one or two sentences. Brooke wants to tidy up after the dinner; Gary wants to put his feet up. Neither party can convince the other of their reasons. Brooke eventually sums it up: "I want you to want to do the dishes." Gary's perhaps a bit too honest: "Why would I want to do the dishes?"
And so they decide to split. Or, rather, break up, since neither wants to leave their shared condo, and neither can afford to buy the other out. But after a post-split dinner that turns amazingly ugly, their guest Riggleman (Jason Bateman) suggests "As your friend -- and your realtor. ..." that they should sell the place. I have a soft spot in my heart for movies that actually talk about money in an even vaguely realistic way, which The Break-Up does.
The other thing to The Break-Up's credit is an amazing backbench of supporting actors. It's not just Jon Favreau as Gary's best pal, or Bateman's polite, puzzled realtor; there's also fine work from Joey Lauren Adams as Brooke's best pal, John Michael Higgins as Brooke's acapella-mad brother, Cole Hauser and Vincent D'Onfrio as Gary's brothers and business partners ... and that's not even mentioning Judy Davis's turn as a brittle gallery owner, Justin Long's self-absorbed receptionist or Ann-Margaret.
Conventional wisdom would tell you that Vaughn isn't the type of guy you'd pick to star in a romantic comedy, and one of the pleasant tricks in The Break-Up is how it makes Vaughn slightly more appealing by giving other supporting players what would normally be the Vince Vaughn part: Favreau takes the part of the fast-talking jerk, making Vaughn look calm and reasonable by comparison; Hauser is the smooth, slightly-creepy ladies' man, making Vaughn look romantic. It's a neat bit of sleight-of-hand. As for Aniston, she's surprisingly good -- and, more importantly, wiling to look bad. Both Gary and Brooke are at fault here, and they each come to terms with that sad, unavoidable fact. Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender are credited with the screenplay, but Vaughn also served as a producer and has a 'Story By' credit, and it's his sensibility that guides the film.
Director Peyton Reed previously made the under-seen, under-appreciated Down With Love, a mock '60s romantic comedy that spoofed and celebrated Doris Day-Rock Hudson films. The Break-Up also demonstrates how well Reed gets romantic comedy; more importantly, he understands romantic comedy so well he knows how to subvert it. There are scenes in The Break-Up where the camera itself goes from the smooth gliding ton of a conventional rom-com to the tense, twitchy hand-held jerks of a more serious drama; it's not a particularly complicated thing, but it does work -- it's like feeling a scene from When Harry Met Sally slide into the realm of Euro-cinema as feelings get more and more strained.
The idea that neither Brooke nor Gary would choose to stay with friends is a little bit strained -- nobody they know has a couch? -- but as romantic-comedy plot engines go, there are bigger stretches. No one in The Break-Up is switching bodies or involved in a ludicrous wager or on the run from the Mob; by this standard, The Break-Up's biggest stretch seems perfectly natural. And it makes sense on a character level, which is more important -- maybe both Broke and Gary are too proud to leave, or too stupid, or feel they shouldn't have to be the one who moves, and quite possibly they might each be right. Near the end of The Break-Up, when Brooke and Gary have stopped fighting and actually started talking -- often the harder and more painful thing to do as opposed to easy, reflexive scrapping -- Brooke yells out her frustration and sadness: "I don't know how we got here." It's not a funny line; it's a real one. And it works.
Much of the advance talk about The Break-Up is that it may be a tough sell -- a downer comedy, a non-romantic romance. And if that keeps people out of the theaters, it won't be a crime, but it will be a shame; The Break-Up wrings comedy out of uncomfortable realism, and mixes belly laughs with gut-punch truths to make for a film far more satisfying that its star power-heavy selling pitch suggests.