Whereas Brooke is a needy, unhappy woman, unfulfilled in her career and her life, Gary is a thinly drawn human male, withdrawn and immature, obsessed with the Chicago Cubs baseball team and playing violent video games. His motivations in life revolve around installing a pool table in the living room, so he can entertain his friends, and drinking beer in his best friend’s (played by Jon Favreau) corner pub. Later, we come to know that she likes the ballet, he likes the ballgame. She likes martinis and fancy shoes, he likes beer and t-shirts. And so on. She wants him to grow-up while he wants her to shut up. Soon though, they tire of one another. An argument over housekeeping spirals uncontrollably into an ultimatum and a final split. Having decided to break up, they must sell their new apartment, split the money and go their separate ways, but neither of them wants to move out, so Oscar and Felix-like, they must try to share the place before it’s sold by their estate agent friend Riggleman (Jason Bateman)
There’s a long sequence in the centre of the film where Gary is relegated to sleeping on the pull-out couch surrounded by a litter of fast-food cartons and beer bottles while she goes and gets her intimate parts waxed in preparation for a parade of handsome suitors, marched through the apartment in order to make him jealous. Although we can appreciate her desire to get on with her life and deal with the inconveniences that circumstances have thrown in her way, the film’s inability to break from this rut and establish some dramatic tension between the two top-line stars wastes the whole of the second act in tired, situation-comedy standard routines. Would any woman choose public embarrassment over private discretion, especially when the easiest thing to do happens also to be the right thing to do? Would any man just sit there and take it, jabbing the buttons on the x-box his only display of annoyance and hurt? Would he arrange a creepy stripper party, engineering the paid-for nakedness to co-incide with her arrival home? By the time these two come to sit down and talk about their problems, it’s far too late. That might be the moral here, but man, this is depressing stuff for a light romantic comedy.
The film shares a lot in terms of story and execution with last year’s stupid Drew Barrymore vehicle Fever Pitch, and the Colin Firth-starring British football story that inspired it, in showing men as stubborn cranks crippled by childish obsessions and adrift in a sea of ignorance, about themselves and the women they share their lives with. What all three films lack is any real insight into human behaviour, both male and female, and the compulsions and emotions that tie couples together. Here, as before, both sides of the relationship exist separate to one another, circling around the central truth that they are incompatible and delaying until the final moments the revelation to themselves that they are wasting their time. For the film to work, for us to be interested in the characters and their destiny, we have to feel at some stage that they cared for one another as they ask us to care for them. We never do. Circling the top-line talent is an underused ensemble of character actors, including cameos from Vaughan’s father and brother, who only get a couple of scenes to establish themselves and then quickly fade into the background. John Michael Higgins, as Brooke’s Broadway-loving brother, turns a family dinner into an impromptu sing-along that adds a little humour and awkwardness but it is nothing like enough. Best of the support is Vincent D'Onofrio, as Gary's fussy older brother, driven to succeed in business and crippled by his inability to help his floundering sibling.
The best that the film has to offer is in the scenes where Brooke and Gary cut loose and argue properly, tough and realistic episodes that rely on dialogue and gesture to show the profound irritation and heartache that comes from realising their mistakes. Here, both actors (Aniston in particular) show real vulnerability and emotional instability that contrasts uncomfortably with the shabby slapstick and pop-psychology of the remainder. Although The Break-Up does aspire to turning romantic-comedy convention on its head, leading to a sad, inevitable conclusion that alone has the ring of authenticity about it, there simply isn’t enough here to justify the talents of the filmmakers or the patience of the audience. As a date-movie, it’s perhaps the one to choose if you and your significant other need to have a long, difficult talk, and require a cinematic spark to set it off.