You can tell that the creators of the new "anti-romantic comedy" The Break-Up thought they were mining comic gold. In scene after scene, talented actors like Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio and John Michael Higgins are allowed the kinds of indulgent close-ups, long takes and pregnant pauses you can only get from hours of shit-shooting improvisations. Maybe they thought they were creating a sweet-and-sour comedy like last year's brilliant 40-Year-Old Virgin, which traded dark, unpredictable laughs with a bittersweet, sentimental undercurrent. But what's left on the screen is a nasty, repellent experience: it's the cinematic equivalent of a big brother who keeps farting in your face and forcing you to smell it.
You can't blame director Peyton Reed working from a script developed by Jay Lavender, Jeremy Garelick and Vaughn himself for not having the courage of his misanthropic convictions. After a very brief flashback, we're immediately plunged into an awkward dinner-party feud between longtime couple Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and Gary (Vaughn). Lounging on the sofa, playing Grand Theft Auto when he should be cleaning up, Gary just doesn't appreciate Brooke, and she's determined to make him realize her worth by dumping him.
If neither Brooke nor Gary has been willing to give an inch in their relationship, they sure as hell aren't about to start. Gary sets up permanent residence on the designer sofa in the living room; Brooke hides in her bedroom, emerging only for the occasional date to spite Gary. It gets worse: Gary arranges for some lap-dancing sluts to stop by; the next day, Brooke mutters to her co-workers that she's partly to blame too. On and on it goes, with Gary finding new and progressively more boring ways to humiliate Brooke, while masochist Brooke just keeps coming back for more, hoping for some reason that she'll win him back.
It would be one thing if the characters were hurting each other out of enjoyment, if we got a sense that they actually got off on all the romantic backstabbing, as in The War of the Roses. But there's no pleasure to be had in their bland, predictable machinations. Vaughn, for all his devilish stares, is less Machiavellian and threatening than ever: The weight he's put on makes him look less sinister, and whenever he cranks up the intensity, he seems like he's got a thyroid condition. Aniston, in lieu of having anything to work with in the script, just keeps finding new variations on her patented stunned frown. The bevy of talent in the supporting cast with inspired cameos from Jason Bateman, Judy Davis and others intermittently lightens the mood, but not nearly enough.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a real theme, or even a recurring idea, in The Break-Up. The dialogue never cuts deeper than "I want you to want to do the dishes." Maybe the writers were trying to achieve something universal; more likely, they just couldn't come up with anything but banalities. The overall message men are either pigs, pussy-whipped or gay, and women are inscrutable control freaks is as antiquated as The Honeymooners. This is one film that might actually offend the sensibilities of both feminists and lazy, beer-swilling slobs.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].