Die-hard Vince Vaughn fans will relish The Break-Up, if not for what it is, then for what it attempts. For a number of years, Vaughn appeared to be a talented also-ran, destined for second-tier stardom at best. The one-two punch of Old School and Wedding Crashers raised Vaughn's profile by returning him to comic acting, allowing Vaughn not only to star in The Break-Up, but produce it and share story credit with screenwriters Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender.
The personalized film features Vaughn's father Vernon (lovingly paired with Ann-Margret), buddy and executive producer Peter Billingsley, ex-girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams, Dodgeball co-star Justin Long, and friend and frequent co-star Jon Favreau (Swingers), as well as a Cubs game (Vaughn's a fan) and a concert by the Old 97's, which I can only presume to be Vaughn's favorite band. Then there's the matter of Vaughn's principal co-star Jennifer Aniston, now said to be his off-screen girlfriend. (Other cannily cast co-stars include Judy Davis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Cole Hauser, John Michael Higgins, and Jason Bateman.)
But does all this apparent freedom add up to a satisfying comedy-drama? Not entirely. Vaughn plays Gary Grobowski, a Chicago tour guide who, in the film's opening scene, puts the smooth moves on Brooke Meyers (Aniston) and steals her from another man. After photo-gallery credits establishing their seemingly carefree, fun-loving relationship, Gary and Brooke throw a disasterous dinner party for their families, resulting in the acrimonious break-up that spans the rest of the picture.
At first, The Break-Up seems poised to be a humorous breakdown of the respective needs and foibles of men and women, perhaps ghost-written by Deborah Tannen. The film's first fight establishes that Gary and Brooke have failed to negotiate their relationship—they're emotionally non-functioning as a couple. Gary doesn't listen carefully, he's selfish and inconsiderate, and he lacks forethought. Brooke, on the other hand, is high-strung, has an unreasonable need for perfection, and wants to convert her man to her way of thinking. Both lack communication skills, and both prove gifted at manipulation when they initiate a tit for tat war of wills while squatting in the prized condo they co-own.
Unfortunately, Garelick and Lavender tip the scales considerably in Brooke's favor. Gary is a jerk most of the time, tolerated for his quick-witted charm, and his girlfriend seems reasonable by comparison. By ceding so much to Brooke and making Gary so often blatantly wrong, The Break-Up loses much of the audience's rooting interest for the characters to work out their differences, which wouldn't be a problem if the film had nastier intentions (as in the more outrageous The War of the Roses). That each person obviously retains feelings for the other makes them pitiable, but doesn't change the fact that they don't belong together.
In some ways, this narrative uneasiness reflects the film's admirable resistance to formula, and The Break-Up is more palatable than the typical romantic comedy, thanks in large part to Vaughn's engaging duets with respective members of the talented ensemble. Aniston creates a mostly believable character, and if Vaughn's motormouthed jerk persona converts too easily ("All I really want to do is make you happy"), the actor executes the money scene with dramatic skill. Second-guessing at the studio level resulted in reshoots, but Vaughn and director Peyton Reed still seem to have prevailed in their cockeyed vision. Unfortunately, The Break-Up is another case of a film that's at least one draft short of brilliance.