Where Is the Love?

Vaughn and Aniston go to war

In The Break-Up, Vincent Vaughn's Gary Groboski is a Cubs-loving, video-game-addicted, mildly homophobic embodiment of man-child Americana who dreams of a world in which he can come home from a tough day guiding tour buses around Chicago, kick it on the couch with a beer and sports highlights, and not have to talk to his live-in girlfriend while she slavishly prepares dinner for both their families.

I'm feeling ya, baby, that is so fucking money!

Alas, Jennifer Aniston's comely Brooke Meyers, who works at a hoity-toity art gallery and has sworn off mirth, is having none of it. See, she has her dreams too. Namely that the man who wants to put a pool table in the dining room of their paint-by-Pottery Barn condo, and whose clothes she lays out like a doting mom, will somehow turn out to be the ballet-going, world-traveling sophisticate she believes is tucked somewhere under Gary's 40 extra pounds of complacency.

Dude, what's up with that?

How this couple ever fell for each other is a mystery. I mean, it's literally a mystery because The Break-Up never bothers to show us. The entire arc of their romance is confined to an opening scene in which Vaughn notices Aniston at a Cubs game, unleashes some vintage Swingers-era rap on her (he's still got mad skills in that department), followed by an opening-credits photomontage of Gary and Brooke in their honeymoon phase (see all the empties in the background?—now that's what I call love). By the time the movie actually starts, they're already living together in a state of such burning resentment one fears the faux-finish paint job in their plush condo will ignite.

Anyway, after the dinner doesn't go so well (not only won't Gary play sing-along with Brooke's cartoonishly gay brother, he won't help with the dishes either!), Brooke and Gary break up—viciously. The film spends the rest of its time watching these two try new and not-very-ingenious ways to annoy the hell out of each other, supposedly in hopes of getting the other to give over ownership of the beloved condo—the house that hate built. Or is the fight over the condo really a fight for their relationship? Who cares? Neither is very inviting.

Look, I'm no genius—I just play one in real life—and I know the movie's called The Break-Up, but isn't dedicating only five minutes of an hour-and-45-minute film about the disintegration of a romance to the actual romance itself just a little odd? I mean, it's hard to care about what's to become of Gary and Brooke without any of the misty-coated memories of the way they were to pull us in.

Director Peyton Reed, who debuted with such a splash in 2000's Bring It On, seems completely at a loss about how to play it here. Granted, writer Jessica Bendinger blessed Bring It with a wonderful script, and Kirsten Dunst was at her best, but even so, pulling off a pitch-perfect send-up of the hypercompetitive world of high school cheerleading without succumbing to condescension or cuteness was no easy trick. Reed's follow-up, 2003's Down With Love, sat less surely on the fence between parodying and paying homage to Pillow Talk-era Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies and ended up being more of an exercise in retro-cool aesthetics than anything else.

Sadly, The Break-Up is simply an exercise in confusion. To call it erratic would be to imply there was a course it went off, but the film's intentions are impossible to fathom. It's a romantic comedy in which the romance comes stillborn and in which the comedy barely exists beyond the few moments when Vince Vaughn is set free to do the kind of free-association wordplay he's made his name on. Think TheWar of the Roses lite—sans the emotional investment of watching a real partnership disintegrate into hell. Speaking of hell, Ann-Margret as Brooke's mother, Judy Davis as her gallerist boss and Vincent D'Onofrio as Gary's brother all look like they stepped into the seventh layer during their wasted cameos. I hope Ann-Margret works again; I don't want to remember her this way.

*   *   *

It's tempting to read something pulled from the tabloids into the dour air weighing on The Break-Up like a wet blanket. Neither Vaughn nor Aniston seems fully committed to the material; whether that's because they know it's a dog (doubtful, since Vaughn receives story credit) or because art is too closely imitating Aniston's life is hard to say. Either way, whatever magic got these stars together offscreen is sorely missing onscreen, unless it was Aniston's peach of an ass, which does make a nice showing for itself.

Finally, about three-quarters through The Break-Up, a few sparks fly when the set is cleared and the grinding wheels of the Hollywood factory slow down just enough to give the couple onscreen the space to mine the depths of their obvious chemistry. For a few shining moments, the audience is reminded of all the charms a first-rate romantic comedy can provide when two sharp, trusting actors are left to their own devices. Unfortunately for The Break-Up, that scene takes place between Vaughn and his old Swingers sidekick Jon Favreau—a match made in heaven if ever there was one.

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