Breaking up is hard to do — unless you hire someone else to do it for you. So goes the premise of “The Breakup Guru,” a helming debut for mainland star Deng Chao and theater director Yu Baimei, who have claimed that they’re pushing the envelope of Chinese comedy but have in fact merely pushed the genre to a new low in terms of racist and homophobic humor. Rather than cultivating the chemistry between its two leads, a masterful seducer and a girl who’s unswervingly loyal to her lover, the film turns into a one-man show for Deng. Nevertheless, marketing hype and a lack of local competition propelled opening-weekend box office to $20.6 million from Chinese and Stateside theaters.
After collaborating on a student comedy at the Central Academy of Dramatic Arts, Yu and Deng were reunited professionally when Deng took the lead in “The Breakup Guru,” a play Yu directed. The screen version retains no more than a fraction of the play’s plot, though its central concept — a man is hired by other men to seduce their lovers — is lifted directly from the French romantic comedy “Heartbreaker.” Deng, building on his high-profile turn in “American Dreams in China,” is the latest local actor to go behind the camera since Xu Zheng made his helming debut with last year’s domestic B.O. record-setter, “Lost in Thailand.” Expectations have been running high for “The Breakup Guru,” which is produced by Enlight (which also made “Lost in Thailand”) and co-stars bombshell Mini Yang, making her first stab at comedy.
In a prologue shot in Mauritius, Chinese tourist Xiaozhuang (Gulnazar, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II”) nearly drowns in the sea and is rescued by a local named La Blacka; she becomes smitten with him and rejects the marriage proposal of her b.f. (Han Han). One can gauge the film’s level of tastelessness when Mei Yuangui (Deng), the breakup guru, impersonates an African by donning blackface, while the other Mauritians are presented as a race of human-sacrificing savages. In similarly cartoonish fashion, Mei’s portfolio of conquests is presented in a series of sketches featuring cameos by mainland celebrities (including Deng’s actress wife, Sun Li). It’s an inherently sexist premise, treating all these wives as laughingstocks because of their lust for ripped young men.
Back in Beijing, Mei takes on the proverbial last job, which leads to an unconventional meet-cute with Xiaochun (Yang). He winds up working for her b.f., Mountain Tang (Liang Chao), a self-styled “master of successology” who’s planning an IPO and an amiable breakup. While the stark contrast between the trusting, good-hearted Xiaochun and smarmy hustler Mei follows the opposites-attract template, the two leads’ bubbling chemistry helps them breeze through the farcical bedroom setpieces and crotch jokes involving Xiaochun’s pet porcupine. Had “The Breakup Guru” chosen at this point to intensify the characters’ dilemma, as their growing mutual affection tempts them to betray either their partner or their professional integrity, it might have succeeded in genuinely engaging.
Instead, the second half delivers more punch-ups than breakups, piling on various action stunts that are far too abrasive for this sort of breezy romantic comedy; scenes of Mei running afoul of Tang’s henchmen smack of particularly gratuitous sadism. Further undercutting the pic’s appeal is its mocking attitude toward the entire LGBT spectrum, with Mei’s catwalk drag routine staged as some sort of freakshow.
The film’s marketing campaign has made much of Mei’s douchebag image as a new brand of romantic hero (in mainland movies, such trickster roles are usually reserved for comic actors like Huang Bo), but no matter how often Mei flaunts his nickname (“Scum”), the mischief he gets up to is pretty tame compared with anything Judd Apatow or Stephen Chow ever made. Playing a virtual master of disguises, Deng sweats so hard to entertain here that he neglects to explore Mei’s inner transformation as his attitude toward love evolves. Faring somewhat better is Yang, who appears without any makeup in many scenes (and looks all the prettier for it), and who balances Xiaochun’s boundless enthusiasm and resilience with a subtle portrait of loneliness and security.
Mei and Tang are both pertinent examples of a recent social phenomenon on the mainland: the sudden rise of gurus who prey on the public’s desire for quick fixes and shortcuts to success. Liang, an impressively physical performer, nails Tang’s two-faced nature and navigates his comedic register with ease, stealing every slapstick scene he has with Deng; his mime double act with a CGI shark is especially wicked.
The production design has the glossiness typical of most Chinese commercial fare. Du Jie’s dexterous lensing achieves a strong cinematic look that separates the film from its theatrical roots, with a slew of aerial shots that capture both Mauritius’ spotless coastline and Beijing’s crowded skyline, setting highly different moods. Costume designer You Ying dresses Deng and Yang in hipster-grunge apparel that captures their outgoing personalities.