May 31, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

For a moment, forget about Jen and Vince — and about whether their new comedy of heartbreak, The Break-Up, will measure up at the box office to last year's equally sour Brangelina vehicle, Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

There's a more significant career at stake here, and it's that of the film's director, Peyton Reed. Reed, a Hollywood craftsman (Bring It On) and sometime director on Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show, made a small critical splash with Down With Love — for my money, the most underrated film of 2003. Was it a fluke, or is Reed a genuine comic talent slowly distinguishing himself from the pack? (Just as I begin to make the case, I find cinephiles over at davekehr.com — critic Dave Kehr's terrific, fracas-prone blog — attempting to do the same.)

Down With Love was an unexpectedly sophisticated pastiche of the '60s Hudson-Day comedies, preserving their aw-shucks absurdity while searching for cautious progressivism beneath their candy-colored veneers. It cast Renée Zellweger as an overtly feminist version of the Day character and Ewan McGregor as the notably demasculinized James Bond figure who tries to seduce her. In upending its inspirations without denaturing their spirit, the movie was even more effective period deconstruction than Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, released the previous year.

So it's with a heavy heart that I report that The Break-Up is only slightly better than its trailer makes it look and that those looking forward to it as the second coming of Tracy and Hepburn — or even of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, in the 1937 trifle The Awful Truth — are in for a disappointment. As a comedy, The Break-Up is only funny in fits and starts, leaning heavily on Vince Vaughn's throwaway one-liners (on ballet: "It's like a medieval techno show") and recycled banter with Swingers co-star Jon Favreau, here cast as Vaughn's bartender best friend.

In a sense, the movie transplants Down With Love's battle of the sexes to a more prosaic milieu. It's not exactly entertaining to watch Aniston and Vaughn as a just-split, terminally mismatched couple — she works in a gallery, he refers to Michelangelo's "sixteenth chapel" — feuding over control of their insanely swank Chicago apartment. More grounded than Mr. & Mrs. Smith or The War of the Roses, The Break-Up consists mainly of the two stars heckling each other in an escalating turf war, with his colossal self-interest overshadowing her demands: He buys a pool table, she gets him kicked off their couples-bowling team; she goes on a date to make him jealous, he schedules a game of strip poker in their living room.

While the film sometimes drags, it's worth praising Reed for his offhand attempts at realism. This is a comedy in which characters frequently don't say the things they need to say — and consequently, one where forehead slaps may outnumber laughs. There are also some genuinely strange touches: the stunt casting of Jason Bateman in a non-comic role; the bizarre scene where Reed allows Aniston's character's brother (John Michael Higgins) to drone on and on about his a cappella group; or the way the movie rallies — after a series of feints and dodges — by trying to do something different with its ending.

Supporting characters (including Judy Davis's megalomaniacal gallery owner) hog much of the screen time, perhaps because someone along the way realized that they had more comic potential than the protagonists. Indeed, The Break-Up is the rare star vehicle that may send fans out feeling more sympathy for the minor characters — the witnesses to the calamity — than for the actors they came to see. Reed may or may not be an auteur, but Billy Wilder might have admired his cynicism.

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