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Couple's cold war is not very hot

`The Break-Up' takes a fairly honest, funny look at relationships, but it's no `Annie Hall.'

June 02, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to talk about "The Break-Up," which stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston as an uncoupling couple bound together by a condo, without getting a couple of words on Vaughn and Aniston's real-life romance, Aniston's recent real-life break-up and how "The Break-Up" compares to "Wedding Crashers" out of the way first. So here goes: Who cares?

The gossip, the bad early buzz predicated on the movie's genre-confusion and inherently unhappy subject (although, if you buy a ticket for something called "The Break-Up," you should be prepared for arguments) and the tedious box-office handicapping put me in the mood to root for the movie, which is easier to do than to praise it very heartily. "The Break-Up" is more enjoyable in the moment than it is on reflection. I'd be happy to see it listed in an in-flight magazine, but "Annie Hall" it's not. It's too bad, because Vaughn, who also came up with the idea, is reliably fleet and funny, and the movie comes across as well-intentioned and more or less honest -- which is better than not honest at all.

Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) are an odd-ish couple living together in a condo they bought and remodeled together. Gary, who comes from a working-class Polish American family, is a tour bus operator (just go with it), who co-owns the company with his brothers Lupus (Cole Hauser), a deluded perv, and Dennis (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is socially awkward to the point of pathology. Preppy Brooke, meanwhile, comes from an upper-class family whose touchy-feeliness occasionally gets them into trouble and works at an art gallery run by a ghoulish Mary Boone type, played with over-the-top camp bravado by Judy Davis in green blush.

In a brief, funny introductory sequence, we get the story of how Gary, sitting four seats away from her at a Cubs game, got Brooke to ditch the visor-wearing guy she was with and go out with him using only a hot dog. The credit sequence that follows -- which is cute -- consists of photos of their happy relationship. The story begins, though, on Gary coming home from work to Brooke busy in the kitchen (their families are coming over) with only three of the 12 lemons Brooke asked for. By the end of the night they have fought in public, fought in private, fought about the dishes, rehashed their old standbys, linked together every grievance in a daisy-chain of resentment, and (apparently) broken up.

"The Break-Up" has been billing itself as an "anti-romantic comedy," a sort of freshly invented antidote to the smothering contemporary conventions of a genre that could definitely use some defying. In fact, it's a classic -- if not very well realized -- comedy of remarriage, in which the things that the protagonists once loved about each other are revealed as they fling the crockery around. The lemon argument is a classic meta-argument that starts out being about lemons and ends up being about everything else. But I'll venture out on a dry twig and suggest that "The Break-Up" might have been a lot more cathartic and interesting if first-time screenwriters Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick had allowed Brooke and Gary any communication at all after the initial fight. Instead, the writers seemed to react to domestic strife by immediately leaving the room, or else packing it full of funny people.

There just isn't enough breaking up in "The Break-Up," in other words, for it to feel anything like one. Mostly, there's just bickering and retaliation proliferation -- plus Brooke's oddly magical view (which nothing in the movie supports) that bringing a new guy over every night and getting Gary kicked off their bowling team will somehow win him back. Gary retaliates with passive-aggressive gestures, such as putting a pool table in the dining room, but ultimately the script treats the end of the relationship like Cold War escalation. There are no retreats, further miscommunication, no well-intended, personal gravedigging conversations late into the night, no breakup sex, no makeup sex, no compulsive dialing, no drinking and dialing, no ill-advised visits to therapists, I could go on. (Tony and Carmela a few seasons ago on "The Sopranos," now there was a breakup.) If the writers are to be believed, it is possible for a two-year relationship that has survived the purchase and remodeling of community property to snap like a chicken's neck after a single fight. Really? She never even tries to talk?

Because they seem like OK people, even though Gary's character is given very little credit and the deck is stacked toward Brooke. As actors, Vaughn and Aniston display all sorts of human characteristics that suggest that their characters' initial attraction might have been based on some kind of ephemeral, non-mucus-membrane-related thing. And you can see how they'd be drawn to each other: She's all comforting limits, maternal control; he's a sprawl of psychic room to spread out on.

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