The laughs flow free and fast in “The Break-Up” — starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston as an estranged couple who build their own little hate-nest — and that, as they say, is the rub.
While consistently, convulsively funny, the movie has a flip, superficial streak: Romantic disintegration as vaudeville.
The variety show starts early on, when Chicago tour operator Gary Grobowski (Vaughn, looking quite shlubby in a winter layer of bratwurst) and art gallery manager Brooke Meyers (Aniston) host a small dinner party for family and friends. Brooke is sore at Gary for forgetting to buy lemons for her centerpiece and generally taking her for granted, while Gary futilely voices his desire to further clutter their condo with a pool table. The scene ends, apropos of nothing, with Brooke’s latently gay older brother (John Michael Higgins from “Best in Show”) leading the table in an a cappella rendition of the prog-rock ballad “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
More or less, “The Break-Up” happily labors along this track for the remainder of the movie: Gary and Brooke grow increasingly hostile and alienated — splitting up, in fact, though both refuse to vacate the downtown condo they bought and renovated; interspersed with episodic, albeit amusing, vignettes involving the movie’s talented supporting cast.
Vaughn’s one-time “Swingers” cohort, Jon Favreau, plays Gary’s best friend Johnny O, who purveys spectacularly bad love advice from atop a bar stool and tries to convince Gary that Brooke is, in fact, having an affair with a Puerto Rican. Gary’s heart-to-hearts with his disco-scum kid brother (Cole Hauser) and quasi-autistic older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) prove just as funny, fruitless and beside-the-point.
Meanwhile, Brooke (a bemused, long-suffering soul, very Jennifer Anistonish) seeks out advice from her own fight-corner, including stable married chick Addie (Joey Lauren Adams from “Chasing Amy”) and her boss, Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis), a brittle, Peggy Gugenheim-style terror who comes up with a man-winning strategy involving bikini wax. Ultimately, on the advice of their Realtor/relationship coach (Jason Bateman), Brooke and Gary decide to end their woes and sell the condo
If anything, director Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) gives his funny, inventive cast too much rope, and the movie’s presumed moral — that romantic mind-games are no substitute for honesty and straight-talk — gets hung with it. Aside from a hot-tempered moment early on, Aniston and Vaughn (whose real-life romance has given “The Break-Up” a tabloid boost) don’t seem all that engaged. Despite a tacked-on, “Annie Hall”-style coda (or maybe because of it), we feel only ambiguity, and the sense that perhaps the stars themselves don’t know what to make of this love business.
In terms of insight, “The Break-Up” is much more useful as a glimpse into the secret pain of Vaughn, who produced the movie and conceived the story idea with rookie screenwriters Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender. On more than one occasion, a character accuses Gary — who is Vaughn, after all — of being a lovably self-absorbed attention hog who has to have things his way. As a viewing companion noted: “He’s such a guy.” Maybe too much of one.
>> PG-13 (sexual content, some nudity and language), 112 min. Grade: B-