Critics all over the country have been panning The Breakup as a badly broken romantic comedy. In a way they are right -- The Breakup is not successful as a romantic comedy. The good news is that's okay, because The Breakup is not a romantic comedy at all -- it's something different and, I'm happy to say, something much better than the formulaic fluff of a date movie the previews make it out to be.
The story, on the surface, seems the same simple, silly stuff that lies at the heart of typical date movies -- Gary and Brooke are a mismatched pair (Gary, played by Vince Vaughn, is a self-centered low-brow cut-up with a big mouth and a sharp wit; Brooke, Jennifer Aniston, a refined art gallery manager whose big heart tells her to go out of her way to make Gary happy, even though she gets little in return) who nonetheless fall for each other and buy a beautiful condo together in Chicago. When they break-up just minutes after the opening credits, they both refuse to let go of the condo, and so are forced to live together, despite their anger over their failed relationship.
If The Breakup followed the standard story arc for the movie it was marketed to be, Gary and Brooke would commit escalating acts of cruelty against each other, until they both realized that the condo they refused to let go was a metaphor for their relationship, and they'd get back together, having learned to put their love above their petty differences. If it were a good romantic comedy, it'd be all of that, but with a lot of great humor along the way. That's clearly what the critics were hoping for with this film, and their inability to get beyond the box in which they'd sealed their expectations clearly kept them from enjoying the really fine film they simply did not expect to see.
(note: spoilers from here on out)
The Breakup, you see, is not about love conquering all. The Breakup is a smart, cruelly funny, emotionally and intellectually honest movie about the mistakes decent (and not so decent) people make in their lives, and about the always painful process of recognizing and correcting those mistakes. For Aniston's Brooke, the movie is about a decent woman who makes a huge mistake in her choice of mate and, rather than admit the mistake, exhausts herself trying to make the doomed relationship work. When she finally realizes the fool she's been, she has to figure out how to let go and move on. For Vaughn's Gary, the movie is about a grown-up kid, a funny guy who's great to have around but who cares about nothing beyond himself, who, through a stroke of unbelievable luck, ends up in a relationship with a woman he simply does not deserve. When he fucks it up beyond repair, he's forced to recognize that he's alone because of how he treats people, and he'll have to change if he wants to do better the next time around. This is a film about two people who (and this is the part that was so jarring to the folks mumbling complaints all around us as we left the theater) do not end up together and, what's more, if everyone watching the film can just be honest with themselves about it, should not end up together.
That's the key to why this movie is so good. Sure, it has some very funny moments, and some extremely sad ones. Yes, Vince Vaughn is a cut-up and Jennifer Aniston is adorable, but what the billboards can't advertise, because there's no way to show it in a tagline, and because moviegoers are typically just not interested in it, is that this film is just fundamentally honest. The script, the direction and the acting are infused with simple honesty. Sometimes, no matter how much you think you love someone, it's just not going to work out. Sometimes you make a mistake that's so serious it can't be fixed with even the biggest, most heartfelt apology. But those big, hurtful revelations are what force us to grow -- to become better, more complete people.
Vaughn is at his best when he's playing that crass, funny guy who everyone wants to be around but no one takes very seriously, and he's good as ever here. And his unforced emotional honesty, when Gary finally realizes what he's done, is fantastic and completely unexpected. Aniston, one of my long-time favorite actors, continues to be amazing, especially as her schemes fall flat and she's left with the realization that she was just simply wrong. She walks a fine line in this film with perfect poise -- a lesser actress would quickly fall into the trap of becoming a screaming harpy, or a melodramatic weeping mess. Aniston does neither -- she's simply a real person, often blind to the advice of those around her, trying to find her way out of the hole she's dug for herself. Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Bateman, Judy Davis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Cole Hauser, John Michael Higgins and John Favreau give universally fine performances in stock romantic comedy roles (best friends, co-workers and siblings) which are twisted just perfectly away from the typical stereotypes and toward real people with real feelings and honestly motivated actions. The screenplay is smart and avoids being ridiculous or overwrought, and the direction is simple and un-showy. As a result, the film itself is simply really, really good.
The last scene in The Breakup is wonderfully, painfully awkward -- Gary and Brooke run into each other on the street after being apart for a significant period. They smile at each other and chat politely, saying mostly nothing. Vaughn's eyes are filled with a mix of hope that, now that he's changed, Brooke will take him back, and knowledge that it's unlikely to happen. Aniston's eyes are filled with genuine affection for this apparently changed man, and relief in knowing she made the right choice. They part, and he watches her walk away. No huge swell of music, no tears or glorious reconciliation on a crowded street. Just mutual acknowledgment that this part of their lives is past; they both managed to get through it and come out the other side, hopefully better for it. Life is painful sometimes but, if you're lucky, you learn from it and move on. It's too bad that the critics can't handle a movie smart and honest enough to recognize this.