Although hardly as wild and freewheeling as its title promises, "Breakin' All the Rules" manages to amuse as a cleverly concocted hybrid of conventional romantic comedy and mistaken-identity farce. Despite the abundance of bigger-hyped product in current theatrical release, pic should score with its target demographic -- African-American urban auds -- and could expand its appeal with favorable critical response and strong word of mouth. Crossover potential likely will fuel solid ancillary biz.

Although hardly as wild and freewheeling as its title promises, “Breakin’ All the Rules” manages to amuse as a cleverly concocted hybrid of conventional romantic comedy and mistaken-identity farce. Despite the abundance of bigger-hyped product in current theatrical release, pic should score with its target demographic — African-American urban auds — and could expand its appeal with favorable critical response and strong word of mouth. Crossover potential likely will fuel solid ancillary biz.

Credit writer-helmer Daniel Taplitz (“Commandments”) for achieving a degree of Feydeau-like complexity in a scenario rife with misread signals, rash assumptions, self-defensive feints and self-serving deceits.

L.A. magazine exec Quincy Watson (Jamie Foxx) is devastated when he’s abruptly dumped by Helen (Bianca Lawson), his flighty fiancee. His blue mood turns darker when his boss, timorous Phillip Gascon (Peter MacNicol), fearing employee retribution, assigns him the messy task of laying off 15% of the magazine staff.

Quincy opts to quit rather than serve as hatchet man. But he takes his “employee termination” research, adds that to his first-hand knowledge of romantic rejection — and scribbles an angry screed that evolves into a bestselling “Breakup Handbook” filled with practical pointers for anyone who wants to avoid unpleasant scenes or homicidal attacks while severing ties.

Phillip — who publishes the book under his magazine’s imprimatur — seeks private breakup lessons from Quincy, so he can rid himself of Rita (Jennifer Esposito), a leggy gold-digger. Evan (Morris Chestnut), Phillip’s commitment-averse cousin, also requests help when he mistakenly deduces that Nicky (Gabriel Union), his current girlfriend, is about to dump him.

Complications begin when Quincy meets Nicky in a fashionable lounge and, without knowing who she is, falls for her. Nicky, however, knows who Quincy is — and, more important, what he has written — but gives him a fake name so she can divine his motives. Rita meanwhile learns Quincy is giving breakup advice to Phillip and vows to win the author over to her side. When she arrives at Quincy’s house, however, she mistakes Evan for Quincy.

Inconvenient events and overheard telephone messages are just a few of the contrivances employed by Taplitz as he keeps pic moving at a pleasingly brisk clip. The humor isn’t always sophisticated — an incontinent dog also figures into the mix– but the dialogue is genuinely witty more often than not, and the well-cast lead players hit all the right notes.

Foxx breezes through with a winning combo of frisky playfulness and comic consternation. Union once again evidences (as in “Deliver Us From Eva”) impressive range and star presence as she comes off smart and sexy, feisty and vulnerable. Chestnut is a smooth operator in a role that requires him to serve mostly as straight man.

MacNicol and Lawson take the broader-is-funnier approach, but they stop well short of outright cartoonishness. Esposito is at her best in a scene where her character reveals surprising self-awareness in regard to her diminishing shelf-life as a sexy siren.

Heather Headley is such a sensational performer in brief concert sequence that auds may wish pic would place plot on pause long enough for her to finish her torchy rendition of “He Is.”

Except for a few interior scenes that appear unaccountably dark, tech values are first-rate.

Breakin' All the Rules

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of a Lisa Tornell production. Produced by Tornell. Executive producer: Paddy Cullen. Co-producer: Kevin Halloran. Directed, written by Daniel Taplitz.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), David Hennings; editor, Robert Frazen; music, Marcus Miller; music supervisor, Peter Coquillard; production designer, Jerry Fleming; art director, Peter Borck; costume designer, Isis Mussenden; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), David Chornow; assistant director, Todd Amateau; casting, Kim Davis Wagner, Justine Baddeley. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Stadium 23, Houston, May 11, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Quincy Watson - Jamie Foxx Nicky Callas - Gabrielle Union Evan Fields - Morris Chestnut Philip Gascon - Peter MacNicol Rita Monroe - Jennifer Esposito Helen Sharp - Bianca Lawson Amy - Jill Ritchie Heather Headley - Herself

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