If you've caught a passing glance at the cover of Us Weekly in the past few months, you probably don't need a recap of the plot. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston star as Gary and Brooke, a couple of Greater Chicago Area love birds who meet cute at a Cubs game, and by the time the opening credits have wrapped up, they've logged many months of couple-dom and have moved into a swanky condo. Gary's a funny, likeable guy, but he's always been the type to do whatever it is he wants to do regardless of what his pals and gals have in mind, and he's gotten complacent in the relationship. After a botched dinner party, Brooke is frustrated playing the role of Underappreciated Doormat and breaks it off. Neither of 'em can swing the mortgage solo, and they're both so determined to win that moving out isn't an option. So, Brooke calls the bedroom while Gary sets up shop in the living room, and they dedicate their lives to making each other as jealous and miserable as possible.
Okay, maybe the skeleton of the plot sounds like something yanked out of the fourth season of Mad About You, and the trailer plays like a best-of reel from a Nora Ephron boxed set. You don't need to pop open Google Maps to see what direction it'll take: a couple of marquee draws butt heads, 31 flavors of madcap zaniness ensue, they learn a little about life...a little about love, and as they're walking off into the sunset, hand in hand...fade to black, roll credits. See, that's the thing. As paint-by-numbers as The Break-Up may have been marketed to be, the only reason I'd call it a romantic comedy is because I can't think of a label that's a better fit. It bucks so many of the usual conventions that I think its unique approach is why the movie was trashed by critics; their problem wasn't with what The Break-Up is so much as what it isn't.
The Break-Up is low on grand, over-the-top comedic setpieces, finding most of its humor in off-hand lines of dialogue (read: Vince Vaughn being Vince Vaughn) and generally just the juvenile oneupsmanship of the intracondonental rivalry. Exactly what they do isn't where the comedy kicks in; it's that they keep tormenting each other almost out of a sense of obligation, thinking it'll somehow teach the other a lesson and bring them back together happier than ever. Its sense of humor mines more smirks than laughs, and that's a good fit for the movie's overall tone. It's called The Break-Up, as if you need that italicized reminder; it's supposed to be uncomfortable. Where the movie really excels is in capturing that...mutual acrimony...the bitterness of a nasty split. Although I've never been at the receiving end of that type of vicious assault (just read my reviews for proof positive how unrelentingly charming and witty I am!), I hear some of these shouting matches verbatim whenever I head home for the holidays, and these arguments are as unsettling in the movie as they are in real life. The cast strikes just that right balance so that the tone doesn't topple over into seeming excessively mean or depressingly bleak, but even with some disbelief-suspending exaggeration for comedic effect, so much of what happens in The Break-Up feels genuine. Gary and Brooke may not have any respect for each other, but the movie thinks enough of its characters -- and they are characters, not cariactures -- to treat them honestly and intelligently. The ending is pitch-perfect; it's not what you've been taught to expect, but it's also not a shameless stab at catching the audience off-guard. Hopefully it's not considered a spoiler to say that The Break-Up ends on an upbeat note, but it's not in the key where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks prefer to warble.
Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston have quite a bit of chemistry together on-screen, not that that's terribly surprising to anyone who's walked past a tabloid while buying twelve items or less at Publix. It's a really delicate balancing act they've been given, but they nail it: they're both instantly likeable, and it's understandable why they'd be drawn together...but why they'd also be at each other's throats. They make the good times and bad both feel genuine. The supporting cast includes Joey Lauren Adams, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Judy Davis, Justin Long, John Michael Higgins, Ann-Margret, Cole Hauser, and Vincent D'Onofrio, and although they're almost criminally underused, there's something about putting people so talented in roles so small that heightens the effect.
No, it's not perfect. As much lip service is paid in the extras to not wanting there to be just one 'bad guy' in the relationship, Vince Vaughn's character is kind of a raging asshole for quite a bit of the movie, while Brooke's fatal flaw is that...what? She wants more out of life than to be an indentured servant who's only allowed to go to work and play armcandy at a Cubs game? She thinks their condo is too small for a pool table and would prefer that Gary hold off on getting one until they move into something a little more spacious? The movie still works being lopsided in that way, but that imbalance isn't what Vince Vaughn and Peyton Reed say they envisioned. It doesn't seem like two people drifting apart so much as a prick pushing away a hell of a catch.
Sure, critics were brutal and the trailers seemed like they were plugging a different movie entirely, but it's heartening to see that The Break-Up did find an audience. As I write this, at least, it's Universal's top-grossing release of 2006 and one of just a dozen films to break the $100 million mark at the box office this year. If you didn't toss your eight bucks into that theatrical tally, shove whatever expectations you've set aside and consider at least renting The Break-Up.
Video: The Break-Up's 1.85:1 high-def presentation looks nice, but the film's visual style doesn't make for one of the more instantly arresting releases on HD DVD. The opening scene at Wrigley Field has color saturation cranked to 11 and boasts contrast that's kind of blown out, and the end result looks closer to the HD channels I'm used to seeing on cable. The dinner party that follows has a softer, diffused appearance that doesn't sport a particularly impressive level of detail either. Most other scenes look fine, consistently offering a marked improvement over DVD, but this isn't the type of movie that pops off the screen. The richly-detailed shots of the Chicago skyline look spectacular, though, and the clarity of the snapshots in the opening credits montage would seem to indicate that the image as a whole hasn't been softened or filtered. Contrast and black levels are both robust, and there are no compression hiccups or visible wear in the source material. I wouldn't grab The Break-Up off the shelf to show off my home theater rig, but I think that owes more to its photography than anything specific to this HD DVD.
This is a combo release, so there's also a standard definition version of the movie on the other side of the disc that you can drop into any traditional DVD player.
Audio: The Break-Up is a dialogue-heavy flick, and that's where the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio places most of its emphasis. There's not a trace of clipping or distortion in even the most heated arguments, and the score and sound effects are balanced to keep the dialogue as clearly discernable as possible. The mix is naturally weighted towards the front channels, although there is a fair amount of deft surround usage, utilizing the rears to flesh out the bustling setting of Chicago in its exterior sequences. The concert bit with The Old '97s hits like a sledgehammer (the good kind of sledgehammer whack!), but other than that, this is an understandably subdued track. There are also dubs in French and Spanish as well as subtitles in all three of the disc's languages.
Supplements: This is the second combo release from Universal to have two layers on its HD DVD side, so there's no need to flip the disc over to take a look at all of the extras. Only one of 'em is unique to the HD DVD, though, and that's the "U-Control" feature that Universal introduced with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Unfortunately, The Break-Up tosses on so few bells-and-whistles that the U-Control interface winds up being more of a hassle than anything else. Basically, at certain points in The Break-Up, an icon bar appears in the lower-right hand part of the screen. As you watch the movie, you can see photos taken on the set or view behind-the-scenes footage and interviews in a picture-in-picture window. That bar minimizes every couple of minutes, and when it pops up again, you have to mash a button on your remote if you want to continue to take a look at any of this material. U-Control really needs some kind of 'play all' feature or even just the ability to remember the last option selected. It's kind of maddening because so much of the material really does enhance the experience and nicely keys into what's happening on-screen, but constantly clacking away at a remote for a buck forty five really isn't how I prefer to watch movies. Tokyo Drift was rich enough with various features for the U-Control interface to make sense, but for The Break-Up, something passive...closer to the "Instant Access" on The Bourne Supremacy...would've been a better choice.
Both sides of the disc feature a couple of audio commentaries. The first of 'em pairs stars Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, which at first glance seems kinda neat because there are so few commentaries with high-wattage actors on their lonesome. Listening to this track, it quickly becomes clear why hardly anyone ever does this. Aniston barely says anything, and Vaughn apparently reserves his energy for when he's in front of the camera. He usually just narrates, points out actors, and notes what was scripted and what was improvised, and that's when he bothers to say anything at all. The best material is covered elsewhere on the disc, often on the more lively track with director Peyton Reed, who paints a vivid picture about the shoot and explains in-depth why certain creative decisions were made. Too bad they couldn't have all been in one room to hammer out a commentary together.
There's a bunch of additional footage, beginning with a five minute alternate ending. Clumsy and agonizingly long (a "...the hell?" a capella rendition of "Rainbow Connection" to close the flick doesn't help), it was rightly yanked out of The Break-Up. Like the movie itself, this alternate ending also features a couple of optional commentary tracks. Next up are eight minutes of deleted scenes that are also a bit more overtly comedic, including Brooke gabbing with well-meaning but...kinda deranged friends and family immediately after the split, Gary trying to pick up some of that "top shelf, young, dumb ass" at the nightclub with tales-o'-goblets, and Gary snapping on the tour bus. The movie's better off without those lighter scenes -- the tone doesn't quite fit -- but I'm glad they were dropped onto this disc. A few scenes also get a couple minutes' worth of brief extensions. A fist-sized chunk of the film's dialogue was improvised, and the 'outtakes' section is really an eleven and a half minute collection of some of those alternate bits, including a rapid-fire onslaught of quips from Vince Vaughn from land and sea, John Michael Higgins belting out "I Will Survive" in just about its entirety while strolling down the street, and the twat-barber rattling off a Battle of the Network Stars. Closing out the extra footage is a twenty minute collection of improvised dialogue between Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau at Skylark. The approach is interesting -- capturing these two long-time friends with a couple of cameras as they banter back and forth -- but...twenty minutes? I like improv as much as the next guy, but that's a bit much, especially since nothing all that gut-busting's buried in there. There's an optional commentary track with the two of 'em too.
The first of two featurettes is the John Michael Higgins-centric "In Perfect Harmony: The Tone Rangers" (6:30). A long-time "that guy!" that I've recognized from a couple hundred thousand different movies and TV shows, it's kinda nice to see him get a featurette more-or-less to himself. "In Perfect Harmony" shows part of his audition tape, serves up a bunch of footage of the Tone Rangers recording the covers he and Gunnar Madsen arranged, and is teeming with outtakes. The other featurette is the fifteen minute "The Making of The Break-Up", and although "making of" is usually code for "extended trailer with Access Hollywood-grade interviews", this one genuinely is about the making of the movie. The cast 'n crew talk about Vince's concept for the movie (The Odd Couple, only with a guy and a gal breaking up in the first scene), how the supporting roles were written with these specific actors in mind, and even some less conventional notes about the shooting order and lining up a cinematographer. Much, much better than average. The last of the extras is "Three Brothers: A Tour of Chicago", which serves up a map of the Windy City that highlights a few key locations. Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Cole Hauser, The Old '97s, production designer Andrew Laws, and writer Jay Lavender introduce viewers to some of the shooting locations, including Wrigley Field, the Riviera Theatre, and the working armory that served as The Break-Up's soundstage. A good bit of behind the scenes footage is tossed in for good measure. Really creative and very interesting.
Conclusion: The Break-Up may look like Yet Another Romantic Comedy on paper, but don't shrug it off based on the scathing reviews or misleading TV spots. Wedding Crashers-meets-You've Got Mail it's not; this is a smart, honest look at a romance in its death throes, and thanks to a sharp script and a strong cast, The Break-Up manages to land the expected laughs while still packing a fully-earned emotional wallop. Highly Recommended.