Misleadingly marketed as a boisterous comedy, “The Break-Up” may be the first “last-date movie” — the one you see with someone that you’re about to dump. Sporadic rays of sunshine emanate from the broad and gifted supporting cast, but the core story is almost relentlessly unpleasant, like sitting through a dinner party where the host couple does nothing but bicker. Pic’s built-in curiosity about the onscreen Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston pairing should quickly dissipate faster than one of Vaughn’s rat-a-tat riffs as word of mouth spreads.
Ill-conceived virtually from the opening frame as a self-described “anti-romantic comedy,” Vaughn plays Gary, a Chicago tour operator who meets Brooke (Aniston) at a Cubs game. Their entire romance then unfolds in a series of pictures flashed during the opening credits, so when the audience meets them there’s no sense of why they connected. Instead, the two are already engaged in the kind of shrill exchanges that generally persist for the rest of the film.
After a disastrous dinner party where Gary refuses to help clean up, Brooke dubs him an “inconsiderate prick,” and it’s hard to argue. Both, however, are committed to keeping the posh condo that they jointly own, so they continue living together, even as Brooke goes on dates trying to stir jealousy in Gary, who takes up residence in the living room and does little more than watch sports and play videogames.
There is vulnerability in these performances, but it’s an uncomfortable mix — especially because the rest of the cast seems to be performing in an entirely different movie during the limited screen time afforded them. Those taking best advantage of the showcase are John Michael Higgins in an amusing turn as Brooke’s closeted brother, Judy Davis as her eccentric art-gallery owner boss and Vaughn’s “Swingers” pal Jon Favreau as Gary’s loutish friend.
Gamely as the others try, though, what transpires between the leads is painfully awkward and often not the least bit funny, from her asking their couples bowling team to oust him to him erupting at her during a game of Pictionary. Nor does the comedic conceit of broken-up people cohabiting — the central image of the movie’s ad campaign — ever quite materialize despite vague echoes of “The Odd Couple,” an inspiration cited by producer Vaughn (who also shares story credit with first-time writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender) in the production notes.
Vaughn’s verbal dexterity remains impressive, and he exhibits genuine pain as well as flashes of the comedy chops that, arguably, were the strongest element in last summer’s hit “Wedding Crashers.” Helmer Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) has clearly given his producer-star free rein to improvise, but there’s not much evidence of any direction, and the character proves almost consistently unlikable, which works against the film.
As for Aniston, she, too, delivers persuasive dramatic moments but has been so overexposed in undistinguished romantic comedies as to be ill served by showing up in another one, even if it’s considerably darker than expected. And the movie’s supermarket-checkout line aspects can only go so far as a marketing hook.
Pic does make reasonably good use of its Chicago locales and song score, though given how obnoxious Gary is, it’s hard to imagine his bus tour representing a major attraction.
Near the end, a weary Brooke concedes, “I don’t know how we got here.” It’s a sentiment most of the audience will doubtless share.