Defending Break-Up: Snuffling, Bile Meet Non-Romance of Year

The first time I saw The Break-Up, the woman next to me sighed and shifted and muttered under her breath at Vince Vaughn’s inability to perform basic household tasks: Oh. My. God …. Jesus Christ, I’ll fucking kill him. I’ll kill him. I will. The second time I saw the film, the woman next to me just wept, all throughout the last half. Both times the audience laughed, and often.

Most big-league critics despised this film. They used words like “wan,” “predictable,” “dull,” “trivial” and “dire.” None of the reactions I saw were “wan.” No one in the audience seemed confused by the “genre.”

As of June 19, The Break-Up was No. 5 at the box office. It has grossed $92 million in its three-week run. This is perhaps not surprising for a tabloid-ridden romantic comedy starring a fairly popular former sitcom actress (Jennifer Aniston) and one of the most lovable actors on the planet (Mr. Vaughn).

Still, the plot seemed predictable, reminiscent of The Money Pit and The War of the Roses. Maybe the dueling-relationship hype packed the theaters—though compared to the Jolie-Pitts’ reproductive African road show, a silly film about divvying up not even a house, but a condo, already seemed rather pedestrian.

But the critics dealt The Break-Up this fatal blow: that Ms. Aniston and Mr. Vaughn had no chemistry. Horror! Since, as the conventional cynical Hollywood wisdom goes, this film was merely a vehicle for the two stars’ real-life relationship, the critics’ charge of no chemistry (translation: love) rendered the whole project an utter failure.

Thankfully, the screenwriters were not nearly as cynical as the public. (They devoted their cynicism to the concept of love instead.) The Break-Up isn’t actually about Mr. Vaughn and Ms. Aniston. You won’t like them much in this film. And so it’s not about chemistry—an idea that would suggest that a film should only be about movie stars.

Yep, they’re no Hepburn and Tracy, but, well … who is?

The Break-Up is instead about a relationship as a superficial arrangement; the actors are reduced to their conventional relationship wants and needs, not their romantic ones. In The Break-Up, the terms are, or have become, practical, not passionate. The film portrays modern cohabitation: Xbox headsets, convenient live-in situations, real estate, e-mail break-ins, e-mail, text-messaging, work-life balance. “I picked your shit up,” Ms. Aniston cries in the most devastating breakdown scene, and she’s heartbroken about this. Theirs is a relationship of low stakes: Note there are no kids here, the movie isn’t called The Divorce.

When it falls apart, it’s immature and cliché-ridden and nasty, which seems about right. Some critics decried the low stakes, but it’s exactly that irreverence—the very pessimistic notion that people actually do not need one another in an age of perpetual urban adolescence, serial monogamy and late-30’s fertility treatments—that makes The Break-Up so dark. It’s nothing like Two for the Road, but it’s upsetting in the same way, as if the curtains have suddenly been pulled back on reality. Perhaps more so: the writers are so un-American in their rejection of sentimentality, it almost feels French. But The Break-Up takes place in Chicago, smoothed over with friendly Hollywood gloss. Peyton Reed, the director of Bring it On and Down With Love, mischeivously tweaks genres, as if he’s trying to gently ease his audiences into slightly daring territory. The Break-Up is actually a risky and meaty film, much better than this era’s romantic comedies, the sort of puffery that doesn’t make any sense in this era, anyway.

Mr. Vaughn is perfect for such a film: He single-handedly subverts a stalwart genre of the male species. As a big white playa-schlub who’s suddenly overcome by quick-witted neuroses, he’s an entertaining twist on the classic frat boy, someone smart enough for Ms. Aniston’s character, Brooke, who apparently attended some Ivy League–ish college, and has therefore conventional and plodding ideas about her own sophistication.

If there’s a basis for the couple’s virus-like resentments, it’s their subtle class differences. Mr. Vaughn calls himself a Polack, gives bus tours and refers to Michelangelo’s 16th Chapel. Ms. Aniston works at an art gallery and wears expensive Florida-white skirts. Sometimes her button-downs are so starched, and her frosted hair so carefully arrayed about her faux-tan creamed skin mask, you want to grab Mr. Vaughn’s Miller Lite and dump it on her head. But that sort of quest for female perfectibility is sadly familiar: the idea that if a woman just looks good, everything else will fall into place, including her boyfriend’s devotion. Which is all she really wants, like a medal.

If anything, the class differences make Mr. Vaughn’s character more sympathetic. Gary clearly never felt good enough for his pretty girlfriend, and he certainly doesn’t understand 21st-century working women in general. (“I’m busting my ass up on the bus so hopefully you won’t have to work someday,” he says. “I want to work,” she replies.) When Brooke goes on a date to make Gary jealous, the guy drives a Porsche and “reads books.” Gary, home playing Grand Theft Auto on one of those ginormous flat screens every guy seems to have these days (one imagines their storage facilities and basements a graveyard of bubble-faced old TV’s), looks defeated. Digging into his own identity, he tries to make Brooke jealous, and so he hires strippers.

In the beginning, he was pleasantly manipulative enough to make her laugh and distract her from his childish habits, which of course, are really selfish habits. Now, all he wants when he gets home from work is 20 minutes of quiet.

And this is where The Break-Up really becomes a pained, convincing affair. You start to think: Doesn’t everyone just want to be left alone? “He’ll realize,” Ms. Aniston tells her friend, after all sorts of envy-making warfare, “I was the glue holding it together.” But it’s a wonderful tribute to our real-estate-obsessed times that the only thing really holding them together was the condo they needed each other to be able to afford.

In their final fight, Ms. Aniston cries so hard she can’t speak—and when she does, it’s not about how much she loved him. “I’ve gone above and beyond for you, for us, I’ve cooked, picked your shit up. I don’t feel like you appreciate any of it.” The absence of personalized affection suggests that modern relationships are often built on these fantasies of roles. But, even then, they’re obsolete fantasies when everyone knows they can move on and find someone who fits into their idea of a relationship just a little more cozily. What terribly banal disappointments! How familiar it sounds.

Later, afterward, he’s lost weight and she approves—a true indicator of the superficiality of it all. That glorious boomerang smile of hers has returned, a true indicator of her real freedom. They’re nice to each other. There’s hope it might work out. Yet they both look so happy and healthy that The Break-Up leaves you praying they never see one another again. It doesn’t feel good. It’s not that kind of film.

Defending Break-Up: Snuffling, Bile Meet Non-Romance of Year