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The Break-Up (2006) – Peyton Reed

May 3, 2010

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up watching The Break-Up the first time around, but I’m sure it was in a fix to satisfy some rom-com junk food desires. I do remember it being released, mainly from the countless TV spots memorable because of Jennifer Aniston’s nude prancing in front of her then real life boyfriend Vince Vaughn. It didn’t make too much of a splash, critically, but for a couple reasons I paid attention to it. One reason being Jon Brion did the score, which seemed a bit odd that he would deviate from his usual quirky, high profile director fare. The other and main reason being Peyton Reed directed the film. Now, I’m guessing the name Peyton Reed doesn’t do much for most, but he did a film I absolutely adore called Down With Love back in 2003. It’s a lovely and clever homage to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day films of the late 50s and 60s that was doomed to not find a place among the young public. Since 2008, I’m not sure how much weight Reed’s name carries even for me after the extreme misfire Yes Man (though its light fare was a nice theatre-hopping come down from bore-fest Benjamin Button), but I think he did some nice things here in The Break-Up.

The film starts as anyone would assume; Vaughn’s character, Gary, picks up Aniston’s Brooke at a baseball game, and then we flash forward to the night of the fight. They’ve been living together; they’re having a dinner party, Gary was supposed to bring home twelve lemons, misunderstands the order and brings home three lemons. The misunderstanding washes away and the dinner starts. At dinner, we meet Brooke’s sister Richard, the closet homosexual who loves being in his barbershop quartet, which the always loveable John Michael Higgins (from Christopher Guest’s improve comedies) saves from being what on paper was a staple bad convention of the rom-com. Once the guests leave, Gary goes for the Playstation, Brooke goes for the dishes, and the break-up ensues. The argument starts like many in the genre; the woman gets mad at the man for not pulling his weight around the house. After a minute or two, it becomes clear that this film isn’t the date movie you’re used to, not because of the obvious handy-cam cinematography, but the acting escalates into a serious territory rarely seen in date movies. Rather, I should say Vaughn’s acting ups a tier and Aniston acts just as mediocre as usual, but she’s going off a much more realistic script than usual. Gary goes back to playing video games and Brooke tells him she’s done as she walks off; Gary lingers and then Vaughn does something very small here that I like a whole lot: he throws the controller. I know that just sounds miniscule, but it comes off as a completely spontaneous moment of frustration that I’ve witnessed in real life. It’s moments like this that  really add texture to a film.

The middle of the film basically revolves around a plot to reel in laughs which appeals more to the couples crowd. Neither of them will give up the apartment; Gary feels he got dumped and should at least be left with the apartment, and Brooke feels it was his fault they broke up and she deserves it. Anyway, they set up boundaries and you can imagine the sort of situations that ensue. Another genre convention arises; the friend. In every date movie, there must be a friend that each half of the couple goes to for consolation. Brooke’s is played by the always lackluster Joey Lauren Adams and Gary’s friend is played by the favorable Jon Favreau, Vaughn’s long time friend. Favreau’s character plays up the typical attitude of being convinced Brooke is cheating on Gary, which leads him to constant vengeful plottings. Justin Long (aka the Mac guy) shows up in a small part as a rather overdone super-fem character, but makes the most of it. Jason Bateman also makes a small appearance as the couple’s friend and realtor and is good for one solid dry joke. Gary’s job highlights one of the recent trends showing up in all kinds of films whose genre includes comedy; the quirky occupation that no one you know would ever hold. Gary is a tour guide in Chicago, and along with his brothers, he is trying to do not only bus tours, but eventually move to boats and planes. This trend was one of the things that really bugged me about last year’s otherwise usually successful (500) Days of Summer.

The third act of the film is the film’s best feature. We get closer to Gary and I’m not sure if we do to Brooke or whether it’s just my feelings toward Aniston that keep me at bay, but she does surprise me in the film’s finest scene. Brooke gives Gary another chance and when he doesn’t pick up on it, she is caught back in her room at the apartment crying. Gary is confused and tries to figure things out as Aniston let’s Brooke’s frustration out by raising her voice in perhaps the only scene I’ve seen Aniston be vulnerable. Peyton Reed should not be overlooked for making this what it is; a pared down, tense, lingering scene. The end of the film sees them some months later running into one another and being what seems to be an attempt at something sweet to one another but comes across as rather fake. It’s a largely disappointing cap of a film that has shown us a self consciousness (although it is a lot better than the alternate ending that I hope was just filmed to throw on the DVD for laughs).

Maybe the most important thing this film does relative to its genre is the way it portrays the male. During the break-up the viewer can clearly identify with Brooke’s problem, but the rest of the film isn’t devoted to having the male character trying his hardest at making the female accept him. Instead, each character realizes what sort of changes they need to make in order to know they have done what they can, which happen at different times. We are left wondering whether things would’ve worked out if they were on the same page, but the main fact that they aren’t on the same page points us in the right direction. Anyway, no one is seen as more immoral than the other.

I’m not saying this is a great film or even a very solid film, but it has moments where it transcends the genre that I really admire and Vaughn and Favreau’s natural charisma make up for some of the film’s more trodden path tendencies. There’s a negative review of this film by one Michael A. Smith where he says “The Break Up may go down with Fatal Attraction as the worst ‘date’ movie of all time,” but I just don’t see how that’s really a bad thing considering it obviously isn’t trying to win over lasting smiles. Rather, the film draws attention, if only for moments at a time, to a potent sense of relational frustration.


Brødre (2004) – Susanne Bier / Brothers (2009) – Jim Sheridan

January 18, 2010

Early this year, I saw the promising trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Brothers and I remembered the Danish film Brødre and how I had started watching it a few years back but never finished it. And if there’s one thing I’m happy about with the remake, it’s the fact that it got me to watch Bier’s original. Now, I’m not super well-versed on Sheridan’s ouevre, but I went in to Brothers knowing In America was a pretty satisfying drama, but I also went in knowing I really only care for one of these actors (save under Nichols’ direction) and that’s more or less based on one character (this guy), not that I have let that stand in the way of many films I’ve enjoyed before.

This leads me to one of the main reasons Bier’s film works: the acting. It doesn’t hurt it has Danish powerhouse Ulrich Thomsen, playing the war-sent Michael. Nikolaj Kaas, who plays the just-out-of-prison Jannik, also proves super effective. But what’s interesting is when first watching Brødre, the acting didn’t stick out as much as it did after watching Sheridan’s remake. The character Kaas created was extremely closed off at first and slowly likeable. Gyllenhaal’s corresponding Tommy is annoyingly accessible and goofy, not to mention the actor is just embarrassingly incompetent at playing a drunk.  There’s a scene in the original that’s exactly echoed in the remake. It wraps up the first act and we see the characters finding out the misinformation about Michael dying in war. Jannik returns the car he borrowed to his sister-in-law drunkenly and she tells him about his brother, and he has an angry reaction to her in a gust of confusion. As cliche as it sounds, these are the scenes that good dramatic films are made of; the type that shows us people as they get emotions and don’t know what to do with them. It’s quite fascinating to see something like sudden confusion acted out, at least when it’s done well.

If you want to know what it looks like when it’s not done well, watch Jake Gyllenhaal try to do this scene in Brothers, it’s not a pretty sight. As well as highlighting the vast contrast in acting ability between the two versions, it also illuminates the difference in tone and presentation. Bier’s is wonderfully understated for such dramatic material; it’s tone is quiet and the camera even has slightly blackened edges that even makes it literally less clear and invites a closer look. And the camerawork, which when I first visited the film a few years ago, I was turned off by because it seemed almost obligatory and stale in the context of Danish cinema (the Dogme 95 movement), but now I wasn’t bothered by it at all and felt it actually created subtle tension (i.e. in the drunk scene).

The camerawork in Sheridan’s film, which I had moderately high hopes for when seeing Frederick Elmes’ name come up in the opening credits, like the rest of the film, was disappointing. I read a review that lauded it for presenting the setting as a sort of an Anywhere, USA town, and I agree to a point, it was definitely generic. You can exude anonymity without being bland, and by the way, I don’t even know what the film would prosper from by being set in Anytown, USA; that whole “it can happen in your town too” thing is a bit passe.

But, back to the acting for a second. Tobey Maguire just got a Golden Globe nomination for his work in this film (let me also point out Sandra Bullock was also nominated for both The Blind Side and The Proposal) which is a bit troubling to me as well. I will say I thought the scene in the kitchen at the end was as close to powerful this film came, and it was because of Maguire’s performance, but that was still only in the context of the road he/the filmmakers chose to take, which was more an exercise in Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome than basic complicated emotions and situations shared between family members. And it’s fine for a remake to try and explore new paths (if that’s what they are doing, I’m not sure) and be totally different, but the problem here, for me, is that the literary concept was developed because of and so lends itself to the latter more than the former. In Bier’s film, you don’t have Thomsen walking around with a gun everywhere and harboring an uninteruppted stiff face, he appears normal and lets the underlying emotions of the character, that you are sure exist, come out gradually. Sure, he’s re-stacking the cups obsessively in the cupboard, but he doesn’t look like he wants to smash them like Maguire does. By bringing in the element of what is so clearly Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome, not only do they have a tag to add, but it so easily can comes across as two-dimensional. I might also add that in the original, when Thomsen’s character gets upset at his wife (in two different scenes) he actually grabs her and throws her, Maguire’s character doesn’t ever come close to this level of domestic abuse if he even touches her aggressively at all. I’ll let you take that for whatever it’s worth.

My other big beef with Sheridan’s film was the relationship between the father character and Tommy. I’m even a Sam Shepard fan, and I know a lot of it was the script he was following, which when it wasn’t merely being transcribed from the original, it seemed to be following an almost Made for TV mold, but Shepard’s acting just seemed phoned in from the beginning. Check the scene in the kitchen after the funeral where the father and son are making up to see these two substandard elements collide.

On a minor note, another usually dependable contributor that failed in this remake was composer Thomas Newman, whose score was almost immediately distracting, especially the electric guitar stuff. And while I’m on the music, I’ll add that ending your “powerful drama” with a U2 original (another Golden Globe nomination) doesn’t do it any favors either. It’s like the hangover that comes after a long night of drinking really cheap whiskey.

As is typical of American remakes of European films, their endings leave no stone unturned. Now, I won’t ruin the ending, but let’s just say if the American remake is really cheap whiskey, at the end they give you quite a gulp of it at once, whereas the Danish original gives you a nice taste of some top shelf Scotch. I know what I’d rather have.
I know this is a pessimistic way to start out a blog, but I seriously and unfortunately haven’t had the ambition to see almost any films in theatres for a long time and it’s movies like Sheridan’s that have made me lose that excitement.

About Dr. Strangeblog

December 14, 2009


Once upon a time, [Peter and] I had a blog called A Blog Ain’t Too Much To Love, which was your run of the mill music blog. It died. So, now we present Dr Strangeblog or: How I Learned A Blog Ain’t Too Much To Love, because I guess blogging ain’t too much to love either. Dr. Strangeblog at this point is going to be a blog in which I write reviews of films and Peter makes corresponding illustrations. Now, the films I review will be most everything I watch; this includes the highest and the lowest of brows, hopefully this will make for an unexpected and interesting mix. Lastly, this blog is still at its burgeoning stage obviously, so don’t be surprised if it changes shapes as it comes of age.