2½ stars (out of four)
Sometimes, no matter how badly you want something to work, it just doesn't. And the best you can do is walk away with what's left of your dignity and, if you're very lucky, a modicum of grace. With "The Break-Up," Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston clearly wanted very badly to make a romantic comedy, and it didn't quite work out. So they walked away, dignity intact, with something else--something surprisingly heartfelt--that's neither romantic nor particularly comedic.
Brooke Meyers and Gary Grobowski are very different. Brooke (Aniston) is an art dealer at a snooty gallery; Gary (Vaughn) is a tour guide on a bus. She enjoys sketching in her free time; he enjoys playing blood-soaked video games. She organizes their social lives, cooks their meals, decorates their condo and does the laundry; he does well, not so much. Gary's a lot of fun, mind you, he's just not exactly the most attentive boyfriend. But he's got other things going for him--he's ambitious, and he's unbelievably charming, and he's a very competitive Pictionary player. On the whole, though, he illustrates the line that so often divides the sexes: She's the giver, and he's the taker. It's clear from the get-go that Gary is a very lucky guy who pushes his luck just a little bit too far.
All of this makes it pretty easy to take Brooke's side in their (shrill and numerous) arguments. She just makes so many very, very good points. And her family is less annoying, her best friend (Joey Lauren Adams) is smarter than his (Jon Favreau), and she's just generally more sympathetic. Vaughn, who resembles a slightly devious teddy bear, has clearly outgrown his "Swingers" role (which is inhabited here by Cole Hauser, playing Gary's lecherous brother), but his rapid-fire delivery and knowing smirk are still very much in evidence. Vaughn remains at the forefront of the highly specialized intelligent/ridiculous comedy genre, also populated by Luke Wilson and Jack Black. His cause is aided by a believable and occasionally very funny script penned by first-time writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender. Director Peyton Reed ("Bring It On" and "Down With Love") brings Vaughn closer to "sensitive leading man guy" than he's ever been in his career.
As Gary and Brooke's relationship devolves from cutesy photo montages to cringe-inducing screaming matches, one question reigns supreme: Who gets the condo? Real estate, especially in urban markets, is more than just a place to sleep; owning an apartment allows us to chase today's Holy Grail: equity. And for Gary and Brooke, letting go of their home is about letting go of the possibility of their future together, a feat that proves harder than either expected. This is the tension that takes this movie from frothy relationship flick to something with slightly darker possibilities. We're not talking Ingmar Bergman here, but suffice it to say that audiences expecting a raucous Vince Vaughn comedy (in the mold of, say, "Old School") will find themselves laughing less than they'd hoped.
On the other hand, anyone who's been rooting for a vehicle for Aniston's acting chops will be delighted. Given the pop-cultural baggage we all tote into this movie, the danger is that the former "Friends" star won't get the credit she deserves for this performance. Brooke and Gary are both awfully good at hiding their pain beneath banter and insults, and Aniston and Vaughn have undeniable chemistry in those scenes, but Aniston really shines when Brooke is alone, particularly in one scene that feels almost uncomfortably intimate. It's Aniston's return to the emotional authenticity that surfaced too briefly in "Friends With Money" and made "The Good Girl" such a revelation.
As far as publicity goes, the studio could have saved itself a lot of money, at least here in Chicago, where a year of filming and post-production generated the kind of excitement usually reserved for baseball games. And to lure the broader audience, there's the little issue of the co-stars' much-debated are-they-or-aren't-they romance, their public sightings and equally public demurrals.
This is the blessing and the curse of (erstwhile or potential) couples making movies in a celebrity-obsessed world: The free publicity is great, and it can be awfully nice to work together, but for every one Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward pairing there are dozens of Bennifers. Of course, it helps if you restrain from making truly horrible movies together. If this surprisingly reflective film is any indicator, Vaughn and Aniston have, at the very least, a very rewarding professional relationship ahead of them. We'll leave the rest to the tabloids.
Directed by Peyton Reed; screenplay by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender; photographed by Eric Edwards; edited by David Rosenbloom and Dan Lebental; music by Jon Brion; production design by Andrew Laws; produced by Vince Vaughn and Scott Stuber. A Universal/Wild West Picture Show release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, some nudity and language).
Gary Grobowski Vince Vaughn
Brooke Meyers Jennifer Aniston
Addie Joey Lauren Adams
Lupus Grobowski Cole Hauser
Johnny O Jon Favreau
Dennis Grobowski Vincent D'Onofrio