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The sheer volume of movies about lovers on the rocks is a pretty daunting number to be sure, with many counted as the most acclaimed films in cinema history. From Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) to Blue Valentine (2010) to everything in-between, there is no shortage of people once in love struggling to understand just what that means. The comedy-drama is perhaps the most difficult genre in which to make this work well, the balancing act of real heartache and genuine laughs not an easy thing to get right.
With 2006’s The Break-Up, this holds true as the movie is far better as a dramatic exploration of two people shattered by their incompatibility that the loose-fitting moments of comedy. And that’s too bad because several well-acted and hard-hitting moments shine, yet are severely weakened by uneasy attempts for broad humor (especially during their time apart) that it wholly undervalues the more impactful emotional moments. Still, these emotional highs elevate what could have been a lost cause and makes this worth a look. Here’s why:
THE STORY: Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke Meyers (Jennifer Aniston) were once a happy couple, but when Brooke starts to feel under-appreciated and even neglected by her often immature husband, she takes action and the two split, though neither want to give up the expensive condo, igniting a nasty war between the sexes. Directed by Peyton Reed, The Break-Up is another couple-in-turmoil film along the lines of War of the Roses (1989), but not quite so bitter or dark, with Brooke, an art gallery owner who enjoys some of the finer things in life, such as the ballet, constantly going out of her way to keep her sports-loving, video game-playing Gary happy while he, a co-owner of a bus tour company, can’t seem to meet her even half way. That description might make him sound like the bad guy, but the film is careful not to be judgmental, only sure in defining them both.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Honestly, it’s the performances. Or rather performance. Aniston is one of those really talented actors that always make you think she’s doing something casually, but in fact is so good at it, fools us with her incredibly natural presence. She’s never been better than this movie, and she’s done some good work before and since, yet she rules this film from frame one.
It’s been said before that her ten-year run on a sitcom ruined her chances for authenticity in the movies, and it’s too bad because certainly, those long years shaped forever perceptions about what she can do behind the camera, even as hard as she tried to break from it in some challenging roles. Here though, she may seem familiar but is still really something to watch, committing deeply to the part. Watch her carefully and notice how impactful her actions are and how genuine her performance resonants. It’s really compelling. Cast Ewan McGregor or Ryan Gosling or the like in the Vaughn part and this movie is completely different. Aniston is leagues better than her co-star even though Vaughn is pretty good.
A GREAT MOMENT: Any good film in this genre is dependent on the ‘break-up’ moment and this one actually does it very well with a failed dinner party bringing the two to odds when Gary doesn’t help her clean up, which she takes personally. They are still tender over an earlier argument, but this is the last straw as Brooke can’t accept how he utterly ignores her needs while Gary complains all she does is nag. Brooke finally snaps when he walks away after yelling at her and then starts to play a video game, telling him she’s done, that she won’t spend another minute of her life with something she doesn’t deserve.
It’s the authenticity that makes this moment shine, with both Brooke and Gary clearly very much in love but exhausted with the thousand little cuts in their relationship. Before the film gets silly, it is this remarkably well-acted and convincing fight that hints at where this film should have stayed, with both characters revealing some tremendous depth. “You don’t get it,” she tells him, hinting about never going to the ballet, which is just a metaphor for sharing time, about what the person you love, loves in their life. He doesn’t get that. The argument works because it feels like something real, not contrived like with many film fights, and for any couple, it rings familiar. When Brooke walks away and Gary recognizes that this time, it’s different, we know it, too. Great stuff.
THE TALLY: As a drama, The Break-Up is a sharply-written little gem that is compelling and even unnerving, but mixed as a comedy, comes up short, though not enough to keep this off your list. Aniston is the thing here, delivering something better than the material deserves, making this movie, one to watch.