When we’re not talking about Lindsay Morgan Lohan (whom I hold in the same esteem as Perez Hilton) and her self-loathing, narcissistic, binge-and-purge addiction to celebrity, I’m not keen on allowing the personal lives of Hollywood luminaries to shade my assessments of their work. And, in front of a camera, there is nothing particularly oppugnant about Jennifer Aniston; aside from a healthy amount of clavicle, a spinal column that owes a lot to post-breakup starvation and a mild case of scoliosis, and pursed lips that look as though they are interminably wrapped around a wad of Nicorette, Aniston is relatively inoffensive. She’s affable onscreen, blandly competent, and knows how to wear a short skirt; really, there’s not a lot else one could ask from a Hardyesque romantic-comedy partner in a post-Meg Ryan world, right?
But Vince Vaughn — man. Not only did this guy pull off a Doblerian feat in snagging the tabloid’s Diane Court, but he’s got a fast-talking, zing-pop appeal that defies logic. He’s borderline beefy, has a recessed hairline that only McConaughey could envy, and has no discernible aesthetic appeal, and yet, when he speaks, he can melt more panties than a Lilith Fair concert in a hot Smith College auditorium. He’s revived the syncopated rhythm popularized by Cary Grant and combined it with an Affleckian (circa 1998) everyman quality to create the ideal onscreen drinking buddy, and only Vaughn could inject a frenetic life into mediocre comedy writing — say what you want about the excellent Swingers and The Wedding Crashers, but there is a reason that your average cubicle schmuck succeeds at only making your skin crawl whenever he calls your Power Point presentation “money.” (And really, at what point can we put a moratorium on “Vegas, baby, Vegas”? Give it up, people. It’s been played.)
But, you just knew that the second you took Vince Vaughn out of the buddy comedy and put him in a romantic one, you’d kill “Fun Bobby,” and The Break-Up is exactly what happens when your drunken wingman turns in his Bud Light for weekends with Mary Alice studying Pottery Barn catalogues. Vaughn needs a slow-talking sounding board to bounce his lines off (really, any Wilson brother will do) and, unfortunately, there is no spring to Aniston’s plank — she’s just a spine, a couple of breasts, and a pair of legs where Vaughn’s lines go to shrivel up and die.
But the problems with The Break-Up have less to do with the Vaughniston interplay than they do with the script itself. Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender’s screenplay seems to aim for an Old School twist on The War of the Roses, but the mark actually lands somewhere closer to an Adam Shankman twist on The Money Pit. There’s plenty of comedy inherent to a break-up where a couple is forced to live in the same apartment together (just ask any current or former grad student), from the sexual bargaining, to trying to share the same bed while you’re dating someone else, to the splitting up of Elvis Costello CDs, to explaining to your friends why you need to hang out in the bedroom because it’s your ex’s night to occupy the living room. Unfortunately, director Peyton Reed seems more interested in turning The Break-Up into an adult version of the “Diff’rent Strokes” episode where Willis and Arnold decide to split their goddamn room in two with masking tape and then bicker over who gets the side with the door. A pissing match involving dirty laundry, loud music, and video games wasn’t that funny in 1986 when Jack Klugman and John Stamos were engaging in the same petty antics on the short-lived sitcom, “You Again?,” and there is little reason to believe that stripping away the laugh track and Jennifer Aniston’s towel will make it any funnier (though, again - Aniston’s vertebrae may give you the same shockingly sick sensation you had when Kirsten Dunst exposed her cottage cheese thighs in Bring it On. Seriously, you could hang a coat and hat on that spine and still have room for a scarf).
The Break-Up starts out promising enough; it opens with a musical photo-montage (using the rom-com staple, Queen’s “My Best Friend” though “Walking on Sunshine” or “Build Me Up, Buttercup” would’ve done just as well) that reveals how Gary (Vaughn), a stand-up act on his brothers’ tour bus, meets Brooke (Aniston), an art dealer, at a Cubs game — and before the last dissolve has faded, the two are living with the post-coital glee of a couple who has just bought a condo together. But then, the inevitable kvetching begins at a dinner party, starting with that lemon centerpiece and heads straight toward the clash over the dishes (“Why would I want to do the dishes?”) that, honestly, provides one of the most authentic exchanges in the lore of romantic comedies. (Seventy-nine percent of all men in long-term relationships will turn to their respective others, nod with a furrowed brow, and gasp: “Seriously, woman!” Sixty-three percent of all women will then appropriately knock their man upside his head for calling her “woman.”)
Unfortunately, from there, The Break-Up devolves into a witless, bastardized comedy of remarriage — you’ve got your Cary Grant, you’ve got something sort of, kind of, but not really approaching Rosalind Russell, and a supporting cast (Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Vincent D’Onofrio) that would make Ralph Bellamy or Fred MacMurray proud, but instead of Howard Hawks or George Cukor, you’re stuck with a director and source material akin to the loudmouth gibberish of a sober Sam Kinison arguing with his wife over flower arrangements — and not even Vince Vaughn could breathe life into material at which Al Bundy would sneer.
However, I will give some credit to the filmmakers for attempting to subvert modern romantic-comedy conventions. Indeed, once they missed up almost every opportunity to inject some amusement into film, Reed actually manages to provide a degree of emotional resonance to the final days of “the break-up,” which is where Vaughn’s tired eyes and Aniston’s ability to display a nod or a look familiar to anyone who has suffered the death throes of a relationship works to the advantage of The Break-Up. Unfortunately, for 95 percent of the audience going in, the ending will provide a stubborn antithesis to expectations. In fact, I suspect that after crawling out of the stadium seating up in cinematic Heaven, Cukor probably turned to Howard Hawks and gravely apologized for shitting himself. But, for those who revel in Ryan Adams, Andre Dubus, and cheap bottles of whiskey, the final scenes provide an almost graceful kick in the sternum. Still, even for the most maudlin cinephiles, it’s not enough to redeem The Break-Up, and for everyone else, it’ll only add to your disappointment.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in a hippy colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Go Get Yourself Some Strange Vertebrae
Film | June 2, 2006 | Comments ()