'The Break-Up': Split to Splat

With friends like these: Vince Vaughn upstages Jennifer Aniston in their romantic comedy.
With friends like these: Vince Vaughn upstages Jennifer Aniston in their romantic comedy. (By Melissa Moseley -- Universal Studios)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Nobody likes a fight that's fixed, except the backroom boys making the deal. Which is why "The Break-Up," a romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, may have its share of laughs, but isn't much fun .

That's because Vaughn -- also one of the film's co-writers and producers -- seems to have awarded himself the championship belt before the opening bell. He gets all the laughs. And Aniston's the pretty palooka who takes the fall, all too early.

Viewers hungry for glimmers of Aniston's off-screen relationship with Vaughn -- so fresh on the heels of that Other Break-Up with Brad Pitt -- won't find more than the usual meaningful glances between any actors playing lovers. And there are no nudge-nudge wink-wink one-liners to get the audience chortling, or sighing, over Brangelina or Vaughniston.

Vaughn plays Gary, a tour guide in Chicago who charms tourists with his slightly risque jokes. His idea of a good time is shooting pool, watching the Cubs on widescreen TV or firing up a video game while his live-in girlfriend, Brooke (Aniston), kvetches in the background. Thanks to his hilarious turns in films such as "Swingers" and "Wedding Crashers," we're conditioned to guffaw at everything he does -- cluelessness, couch-potato slovenliness and all. ("Get some!" he yells, clicking at the console, as his favorite character blows cops into smithereens.) There's no question whose corner we're supposed to be in.

Brooke's a humor-impaired art dealer who has a sharp eye for fine paintings, ballet and Gary's domestic shortcomings. Her reactions amount to three: She's appalled, thunderstruck or upset by his actions. When she weeps, her face concertinas into a wet, squishy mess. She seems perpetually miserable. (Aniston clearly fails the A-list actress challenge of still looking beautiful while crying -- think Meg, Julia -- and instead just blubs like the rest of us.)

When, in the heat of an argument, Gary makes a point about Michelangelo's "16th chapel," it's Brooke's straight-gal job to inform him it's the Sistine Chapel. She's right, but he's funny. And in comedy, smart alecks lose and endearing goofballs win. Round 1 to Gary.

When Brooke decides to end the relationship, both parties refuse to leave the condo they bought together. So they agree to an estranged coexistence, with Gary spending his nights on the pullout sofa. But even though he's lost the bedroom, and is clearly heartbroken, Gary remains on top. When Brooke brings in a new suitor named Mike, for instance, Gary persuades him to sit down for a quick game of virtual football. Mike soon forgets he's supposed to be taking Brooke out on a date.

"I can't take all the credit," Gary says, when Mike expresses admiration for his video-clicking prowess. "I gotta thank those little digital guys with the big hearts."

Brooke reads in the background, pretending not to care, losing again.

Aniston showed peppy spirit as Rachel Green in years of TV's "Friends," and she was a ticklish surprise as Joanna in "Office Space." But in this movie, she never gets to show those comedic abilities; she's cast as a cute killjoy. When Gary's beaten up by Brooke's gay brother, Richard (John Michael Higgins), whom he previously dismissed as a wimp, Brooke snickers when Gary recounts the story. But even then, she doesn't win the round; Gary loses it on his own.

It takes two to tangle -- a couple evenly matched, ready to fight tooth and nail. Take a speedy rewind through the best romantic matchups of the past: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally," or Cher and Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck." It's as comical to watch Crystal getting flustered as Ryan, Hepburn as Tracy. It's enjoyable to wonder who's going to get the upper hand -- even as we conveniently forget the inevitable result: a heartwarming tie.

Because the main event in "The Break-Up" is such a disappointment, we're reduced to finding amusement in the supporting characters, who are, frankly, the best thing about the movie. Higgins, best known for his turns in "Best in Show" and TV's "Arrested Development," steals every scene he shares with Vaughn. At one point -- and to Gary's horror -- he enlists an entire dinner gathering of family to accompany his a cappella rendering of the Yes song, "Owner of a Lonely Heart." Then there's Andy (Peter Billingsley), the henpecked husband of Brooke's best friend (a surprisingly muted Joey Lauren Adams), who can hardly speak without a signal from his wife. Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Gary's brother, has one of the finest scenes of all, a real tour de force, as he wordlessly expresses his frustration with Gary by uncricking his neck and, peculiarly, using the corners of a handkerchief to clean the wax out of his ears. The routine is so off-the-wall, you can't help laughing. And you know when you're chuckling at moments like this, you are craving a better comedy.

The Break-Up (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity, sexual content and some nudity.

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