Downbeat romantic comedy “Breaking Upwards” reps a variation on the docu-fiction hybrid, as real-life filmmaking couple Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, portraying themselves, re-create an actual past domestic situation: their ill-advised experiment with an incremental break-up. The duo’s longtime partnership imparts a palpable, lived-in intimacy, but lack of careful story construction sometimes hobbles the narrative’s comic flow. Happily, “Upwards” picks up immeasurably when three legit luminaries (Andrea Martin, Julie White, Peter Friedman) enter the picture as the couple’s parents. Made for a mere $15,000, pic opened April 2 at Gotham’s IFC Center simultaneously with its VOD launch.
Would-be writer Daryl (Wein) and aspiring actress Zoe (Lister-Jones) have lived together in a small Brooklyn apartment for four years, and their 24/7 familiarity is starting to breed dissatisfaction if not contempt. Concerned by their relationship’s ongoing erosion, the two sophisticated young twentysomethings discuss their options with equanimity. They decide to take days off from their couplehood (four days together, three apart), lay out specific ground rules (no phone calls on off days) and make lists of goals they want to accomplish during their newfound quasi-independence.
Each finds it difficult to function without the other’s support, co-dependency proving as addictive as it is comforting. As Zoe succinctly puts it, “When he’s with me I want to kill him. When he’s not, I miss him.” Unsurprisingly, as their semi-estrangement advances into socializing with other potential partners, Daryl gets the better end of the deal, attracting intelligent, sexy women played by the likes of Olivia Thirlby, while Zoe gets the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am treatment from a jaunty fellow thesp (Pablo Schreiber) seeking to deepen their stage chemistry.
Curiously, neither Daryl nor Zoe has a best friend. Instead, their parents assume the oddball sidekick roles, and do so brilliantly, even through the film’s Passover seder finale. “SCTV” vet Martin, as Zoe’s pot-smoking single mom, dispenses unconditional love and self-deprecating cynicism with matching snorts of laughter. Friedman lends quiet humor and surprising dignity to the oft-caricatured figure of the unassuming dentist dad, while White provides a dizzying spin on the 21st-century Yiddishe mama (“Why couldn’t you be gay like your brother?”).
The parents, who dominate the film’s second half, not only provide great foils for the leads, but also anchor the story’s otherwise inexplicably foggy timeframe. While the film traces a long, gradual process (at one point Zoe wryly comments that their split-up may outlast their affair), the filmmakers give no indication of whether days, weeks or months have elapsed between scenes, so that jealous flare-ups and infantile regressions seemingly come from nowhere. Meanwhile, Alex Bergman’s colorful lensing of Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods seems to unfold in perpetual spring.