The first scene of The Break-Up explains how Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke Meyers (Jennifer Aniston) first met. It has to be seen to be believed. The setting is a Chicago Cubs game; Brooke is sitting a few seats down from Gary, far enough that he would have to yell to talk to her. He orders six hot dogs from the guy in the aisle. As people dutifully begin to pass down the hot dogs, Gary offers Brooke one. Did he say one? He meant two. She says she doesn’t want a hot dog. Gary insists. She says that really, she doesn’t want one. Nothing doing. The guy with her — maybe her boyfriend? There’s no way to know — tells Gary that seriously, they’re okay. No no, Gary says. They must have a hot dog. Finally, Brooke grabs one of the hot dogs and waves it, passing the rest down, presumably so Gary will leave her alone.
After the game, on their way out of the stands, Gary asks Brooke out. She is with someone, she tells him. Really? He asks. Because it doesn’t look like he’s the guy for you. Do you really want to waste more time on someone who is not the guy for you? She tries to walk away. He follows, breathing down her neck. If you really want to waste time on that guy, that’s fine, I’ll leave you alone. But is that what you want? Because if that’s what you want, then that’s fine.
Does she, as a reasonable woman would, either kick him in the nuts or yell for security, and run away? The truth is anybody’s guess, since the film cuts away, but considering that what follows is a title montage of various photos showing the two of them as a happy couple, I am going with “no.” But the guy is crazy, or at the very least extremely obnoxious and creepy. I couldn’t understand this. Are these real people? What’s going on?
Vaughn’s Gary continues in this vein until his inevitable third act transformation. He is not merely boorish and inconsiderate, he is from another planet. He doesn’t understand human emotion and hasn’t a clue about how to interpret human behavior. The mystery of Brooke, who seems perfectly nice, not only having moved in with him but becoming upset about the possibility of a break-up is compounded by the fact that it’s not like she would have discovered these facts after starting to date him. He made it all perfectly obvious the first time they met.
Of course, it’s all for laughs. That’s part of the problem. The screenplay has the characters act in arbitrary ways for the sake of punch lines, then abruptly gets serious and expects us to care. Conventional romantic comedies depend on our being able to identify with the characters on some level, even if it’s simply vicarious wish fulfillment. The Break-Up can’t work because it denies its protagonist his humanity, and us the pleasure of watching human characters do at least vaguely human things.
The comedy is hampered by the fact that very nearly every good joke was spliced into the numerous and ubiquitous trailers that started appearing as early as last fall. There are still laughs, at least to the extent that you are amused by Vince Vaughn’s patented comedy of verbal excess, wherein he talks and talks until you cry uncle and giggle. As a bonus, we get cameos by Jason Bateman, Judy Davis, John Michael Higgins and Justin Long, the latter unexpectedly showing up as a lisping gay stereotype.
The film rallies with an ending that works despite everything, suggesting that the solution to these characters’ problems, not only in the relationship but in their whole lives, was not to be together. (The title is not, amazingly enough, a lie.) But ultimately even that rings hollow, as the film’s message is only appealing on an intellectual level. Though clever and even mildly original, it doesn’t mean a thing in the context of these characters. Nothing much else does, either.