The surprising thing about "The Break-Up" is not how funny it is, as that's to be expected, but how serious it is. Also surprising: It works.
Here is a believable, non-sappy, unforced breakup comedy that dares to defy expectations of what a "breakup comedy" should be. The story of Gary (Vince Vaughn) and his girlfriend Brooke (Jennifer Aniston), who both refuse to vacate the condo they co-own even after their relationship disintegrates, doesn't become a "War of the Roses"-style farce, nor does it follow the conventions of the traditional romantic comedy. It's something else -- a light drama with several laugh-out-loud moments and a smart sensibility.
I think it will disappoint a lot of people. Vince Vaughn fans won't find the next "Wedding Crashers" or "Old School," though Gary is certainly a kindred spirit to the overgrown teenagers Vaughn played in those films. And romantic-comedy fans will find "The Break-Up" devoid of the glossy emotional manipulation they crave.
Directed by the super-savvy Peyton Reed ("Bring It On," "Down with Love") and written by Vaughn's buddies Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender from an idea he conceived with them, "The Break-Up's" breakup starts with a dinner party for their families thrown by Gary and Brooke in their trendy Chicago condo. Brooke has worked all day at an art gallery and has cooked and cleaned on top of that; Gary has spent the day giving bus tours for the company he runs with his brothers and now wants to watch ESPN rather than help Brooke prepare for the arrival of their guests. The capper? The ONE thing Brooke asked him to do -- bring home a dozen lemons -- he has failed to do.
As their relationship dissolves -- she feels unappreciated, he feels indignant at her feeling unappreciated -- they go through the usual steps, including childish behavior and petty revenge tactics. Their stubborn refusal to cancel an already-planned game night with friends has hilarious results. Brooke's best friend Addie (Joey Lauren Adams) is ripe with own-your-feelings advice, while Gary's brothers (Cole Hauser and Vincent D'Onofrio) and best friend (Jon Favreau) are sometimes helpful, sometimes juvenile.
The film's promotional tagline ("pick a side") suggests a battle of the sexes, but that's not what happens. Most of the blame for the breakup is clearly Gary's, and the film makes no attempt to suggest otherwise. Men will wince as they see Gary making the same stupid mistakes they've made, and women will smile smugly to see their point of view vindicated -- in a movie written and directed by men, no less.
It's a droll, enjoyable film with a resolution that, despite being the product of studio-ordered re-shoots, is actually satisfying. Could the film be funnier? Yeah, and I think maybe it should be, too. Vaughn and Favreau have just enough scenes together to make you think, "Man, I wish they had more scenes together," and some of the slyly funny supporting characters -- John Michael Higgins as Brooke's a cappella-singing brother, Jason Bateman as the couple's friend/Realtor, Judy Davis as the owner of the art gallery and Justin Long as its fey receptionist -- are underused.
Yet I'm impressed by how honest the scenes between Brooke and Gary are. Nearly everyone has experienced a breakup before, so why are breakups so rarely portrayed accurately in movies? Vaughn, who is probably the best Everyguy in movies today, and Aniston, with all of America on her side no matter what, are both likable and empathetic in their performances. We want them to be happy, whether that means staying apart or getting back together.