An interesting but failed attempt to take the well-worn romantic comedy genre and inject some serious realism into it, "The Break-Up" never quite settles on what it exactly wants to be. Rather than dealing with the standard 'falling in love' plot, the film gets the honeymoon period over and done with in the opening credits and moves straight to the end of the relationship and its aftermath.
Right from that point though it becomes a schizophrenic affair, wildly shifting in tone between a far less over-the-top spin on the dark comedy classic "The War of the Roses", to a painfully realistic and surprisingly un-Hollywood take on how people deal with having fallen out of love with someone significant to them.
Indeed it's those serious moments that make the film worthwhile. I can't recall a studio film in years that has dealt with relationships coming apart in such a believable way as this does when it treads its dramatic ground. We're used to seeing grand larger-than-life love affairs meet tragic endings in cinema, but to see a film about one where the fights are believable - squabbles arising from small petty things and often caused by simply differing viewpoints - is a bit of a shock to see with a cast made up of actors mostly known for doing formulaic comedies.
That proves both the film's blessing and curse. Anyone who has been in a relationship will easily identify with moments in this, the truth is uncompromising much of the time with very convincing domestic arguments of both bitterness and high emotion. Yet the fights are so realistic that it's quite uncomfortable to watch, much like we're eavesdropping on a close friend going through the same thing. In spite, or maybe because of this awkwardness, these candid moments are painfully sad and quite touching in how they unfold.
Done as a straight drama, the film would've succeeded at being something different. However framing those moments of grief, anger, hope, denial and eventual self-realisation is a relatively average studio comedy which often falls into pure sitcom territory. Supporting characters are one-joke sound boards offering wacky life mantras for advice, whilst formulaic gags about effeminate siblings or guys being lazy grown-up boys who play video games all day are spread throughout.
The likes of Justin Long, Jason Bateman, Joey Lauren Adams, Vincent D'Onofrio, John Michael Higgins and Cole Hauser are utterly wasted, all relegated to one-note roles which are either throwaway or such utter caricatures that they stick out like a sore thumb in a movie that's often so real about everything else. Only Favreau, with his welcome chemistry with Vaughn, and Judy Davis as Aniston's bitter & high-strung boss really stand out.
The film is all about the leads though and Aniston hasn't been this good in years. She's got the gorgeous look and presence of a real movie star, yet is very amenable and down-to-earth. She can handle the comedic moments with solid timing, but proves even better with some of the more emotional bits including the final big fight scene in which she's simply excellent. Best of all she's got the most sympathetic character that we can identify with - the one hopeful that things will work out, the one who tries to make things work, and the one who actually seems serious about contributing to something more.
Unfortunately that leaves poor Vince Vaughn stuck out in the cold with only his schtick to save him. Armed with average joe looks, lazy disposition and effortless charm, Vaughn is able to provide many of the small moments of humour in the film and certainly has a character that everyone can identify with. Still, in a film that's about two people arguing over who's wrong in a relationship, Vaughn spends most of the time very obviously in the wrong - his selfish and lazy disposition puts us on Aniston's side from early on and throughout the split his more mean-spirited attempts to get back at her don't help win us over.
The film does eventually see the character grow and actually become more sympathetic by the end, but it's too late. Unless you're into Vaughn's style of arrogant humour you'll find him an annoying character, and think it somewhat unbelievable that Aniston's character would fall for such a lout. Whilst it may often suffer from a identity crisis in regards to tone and intelligence, the film's ending does manage to tie things up in a way that's upbeat, natural and for once takes the higher and tougher moral road whilst still leaving us as an audience satisfied with how things eventually turn out.
Taken as a comedy it's decidedly average, but Director Peyton Reed and his crew ultimately deliver something worthwhile to those open-minded enough to be able to settle with wild shifts between average satire and grounded pathos. The gags may be half-baked, but there are serious emotional moments in here that strike with more resonance than any other film I've seen this year. It's a shame really it didn't go as far as it obviously wanted to go.