I’m not sure why critics are panning this one. I liked it just fine. Actually, I thought The Break-Up was kind of noteworthy in some ways. Maybe saying so makes me a bad critic, but whatever. I’d say that this is definitely a movie worth seeing, and as usual, there’s also some spiritual insight to be had here as well.
So, what makes me a bad critic in this case? Like I said, I liked the movie just fine. Plotwise, I liked it, and there really needn’t be much summarizing. This movie is one of the most aptly titled in recent memory. It’s a break-up. That’s it. You don’t even get to see Vaughn and Aniston as a happy couple, except for a quick montage during the opening credits. And there is no typical, romantic comedy ending either. The title is not ironic. They really do break-up in a funny, yet heartbreakingly realistic and serious sort of way. The ending, which seems to be a favorite critic target, pretty much worked for me as well. Yes it’s sad, and kind of a letdown, but you’re supposed to focus, I think, on the verisimilitude of it. People really do break-up. And sometimes the positive side of those broken relationships can only be shown in terms of personal growth apart from each other. And when that’s the case, when you see that ex on the street a year later, it really is awkward, and bitter-sweet, and sometimes it really doesn’t lead to a hackneyed “getting back together.” Sometimes break-ups really are just break-ups.
Why else am I a bad critic? I liked the cast. No, edit, I loved the cast. I also had no problem with the depth of the characters in the film, nor did I feel that this movie fell into the pop-culture-voyeurism category that seemed to bode ill for stuff like Eyes Wide Shut, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or Gigli. I didn’t see the movie to see Vaughn and Aniston together, and anyone who does might be disappointed. Speaking of the leads, Vaughn is perfect here—hilarious, slick/fast talking, frat-boy appeal all the way. Team him with Aniston, who has proper gravitas (and desirability) throughout, and you’ve got the perfect duo to tell this story of selfishness gone wrong and moving on. Plus you’ve got Vaughn teamed with Favreau. Money. You’ve got Vincent D’Onofrio, a great and sadly underrated actor. You’ve got Joey Lauren Adams to add some Kevin Smith street cred. Jason Bateman and Peter Billingsley for nostalgia. And it all works. Like a Red Ryder Carbine going off and shooting your eye out and scaring all the beautiful babies and Vietnam War vets in a Jersey mall while Friends and Hogan Family reruns play in the background, it works.
Why else am I a bad critic? Because thematically, as a genre-buster, I think The Break-Up has a lot going for it. Like The Squid and the Whale, this movie is supposed to put you inside a dysfunctional relationship, and make you watch it. You want to be a voyeur? Okay, check out these true-to-life arguments, cut-downs spoken too fast, moments of frustrated silence, hopeless looks full of what must be happy memories, but memories that you can see slipping into a past that’s going to be nothing like the future, and the sadness of that. Be a fly on the wall and squirm. Participate in the film’s motif of one character walking in on the other, only to be surprised with that character at the constant new developments, retrogressions, of a relationship disintegrating live in front of you—just like it is in real life. Not like it is in the movies, usually, but in real life.
This, I think, is the key to understanding and appreciating this anti-romantic-comedy. By playing with the conventions of the genre, The Break-Up gives you a chance to meditate on selfishness and rashness and communication and lack of communication and commitment and lack thereof and growth and absence of growth and big life issues and little daily domestic issues and . . . actual relationships on the whole. Not, like most romantic comedies, on positive aspects of love, fate, happy endings, etc.—things that are often far from our actual experience. And by doing so, this film has a far better chance of actually connecting to and affecting our actual experience. To that end, we’re meant, I think, to identify with some character in the movie. Maybe we’re Vaughn. Maybe we’re Aniston. Maybe we’re an advice-spouting friend. Maybe a taken-advantage-of family member. Maybe a potential new lover in the midst of someone else’s storm. But whatever the case, we have some way to tap into the movie with all its realism. And when we do tap in, we can then—as when looking into a mirror—begin to consider how the changes of the characters in the movie might also be our changes.
And of course, this is a spiritual move. In making a movie about people, and how they can be to each other, and how they should be, and how they can change, and how all of it affects rings of people, the filmmakers hopefully challenge us with ultimately spiritual insight. Vaughn’s character is selfish. Are we? We aren’t supposed to be. The couple in this film speak before thinking. Do we? We aren’t supposed to. It has consequences, as this movie makes clear. We often consider revenge or stubbornness or appearances before we consider compromise or service or truth. We’re not supposed to. Bottom line: we too often put ourselves before anyone else. We’re. Not. Supposed. To.
So, for anyone who—like the characters of this movie, like myself, like all of us, if we’re honest—has tasted how destructive selfishness can be, and who has longed to be changed, perhaps The Break-Up is one way to broach the subject, albeit with the following final realization. In the film, Vaughn’s epiphany comes naturally enough—through friends, through reflection—and we get the sense that he’s changed. But for anyone who knows that those epiphany moments are rarer in life than on film, and who knows that personal change is often sadly fluid, know too that changing one’s true nature and character has been on the minds of human beings for a long time, and that it’s worth pursuing, but that not all methods of pursuit are created equal. Pursue then, I hope, with this in mind: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” What a promise for real-life people . . . people who need change just as much, and often in the same ways, as the realistic people of The Break-Up.