It's become fashionable to use the 1970s as a stick for beating up contemporary Hollywood films. In the '70s, the argument goes, even mainstream films took big chances and expected audiences to follow along. Now everything gets plugged into formulas and market-tested until one romantic comedy is virtually indistinguishable from the next. The argument is legitimate, but it fails to take into account films like The Break-Up (even with its widely reported tacked-on ending), which starts with stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston meeting cute, but then spends the rest of the film watching them, as the title suggests, break up. And it isn't a pretty breakup, either. Director Peyton Reed busts out the handheld camera as Vaughn and Aniston fight and fight and fight. Sure, there's a gimmick: Neither wants to lose the condo they share. But that's just an excuse to keep them fighting. It's all quite ambitious, and the Jon Brion score and gorgeous Chicago location photography serve as reminders that everyone's really going for something.
Unfortunately, they don't come anywhere close to achieving it, unless Reed and screenwriters Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender (with Vaughn getting a story credit) were shooting for a virtually laugh-free comedy about two people taking way too long to figure out what audience members know from the credits on: They don't belong together. But getting to that point requires a lot of belabored bits, like Aniston trying to make Vaughn jealous while Vaughn tries to turn his sleeper couch into the center of a swinging bachelor pad. Meanwhile, Aniston pal Joey Lauren Adams dishes straight-out-of-a-self-help-book advice, and Jon Favreau acts as Vaughn's dubious counsel.
A lot of The Break-Up doesn't work. Actually, apart from some funny moments between old Swingers sparring partners Favreau and Vaughn, and a nice scene with Jason Bateman as the couple's realtor, virtually none of it works. Reed—who directed Bring It On and the underrated space-age pastiche Down With Love—creates some strong visuals, but the movie makes the fatal mistake of assuming viewers will like the leads just because they're Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. But Vaughn's high-speed charm remains untethered, and apart from initiating the breakup, Aniston acts like a passive-aggressive doormat. There's no reason to root for either one, or to care whether they stay together. It's like watching the "we were on a break" episode of Friends stretched to feature length, and without the blessed relief of commercial breaks or the promise of Seinfeld around the corner.