When he first showed up in Swingers, that 1996 indie classic of masculine style and anxiety, Vince Vaughn had a startling shoot-to-kill glee. Taller, by a head, than anyone around him, with black-diamond eyes that gave off a glint of repressed panic, he came on like a born player but also a bit of a nutcase, with an assaultively funny motormouth rhythm all his own. (He was like Christopher Walken’s hypomanic son.) This mock hipster, who liked to call his friends ”Baby,” was himself a giant baby-man — an overgrown case of arrested cool.
The Break-Up, a synthetically hostile he said/she said cartoon of a romantic comedy (it’s Friends meets The War of the Roses), tries to present Vaughn, for the first time, as a domesticated Hollywood leading man, but from what we can tell he’s even more of a baby than before, pitching his testy patter to no one in the room but himself. Taking a cue from Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, Vaughn flaunts a jelly belly and a slob wardrobe; he doesn’t act in this film so much as he hangs out in it.
He and Jennifer Aniston play a Chicago couple who terminate their two-year relationship but keep trying to live together in the condo they co-own. As he sets up sleeping quarters opposite his beloved big-screen TV, their backbiting fits degenerate into a hatred that gets jacked up, scene by scene. She blasts Alanis Morissette’s ”You Oughta Know” and tosses his clothes out; he brings in the pool table they never had room for (though, frankly, the place looks big enough for a pool table and a bowling alley). By the time he hosts a night of strip poker, with busty bimbos smoking cigars under disco lights, you may wonder why he doesn’t just go off with one of them and leave this dead shark of a relationship behind.
A lot of people will probably want to see The Break-Up, not just for the gossipy potential of its Vaughniston/Brangelina tie-ins but because the concept, which is all there is to the film, hinges on the universality of romantic implosion. We’ve all dumped and been dumped, and you go to see this movie for the comic jolts of recognition — the eternal war between what men and women want. That’s the idea, at any rate. What The Break-Up comes down to, though, is this: Brooke (Aniston), nice and WASPy and generous and tasteful, is a girl-next-door beauty with a classy job at an art gallery; Gary (Vaughn), a Polish prole who gives rambunctious bus tours of Chicago, doesn’t do much at home besides sulk and play videogames. The movie is structured, in the screwball tradition, as a comedy of remarriage, though we can barely see what these two ever had together. A credit montage depicts their supposedly happy two-year union in a series of photographs, and then we cut to Gary arriving home before a dinner party, toting three lemons; Brooke had asked him to get 12. He objects — to going out and getting more lemons; to the lemon centerpiece she wants to create; to setting the table; to doing much of anything. (Then he disses her cooking.) This doesn’t exactly look like a balanced relationship — but, more to the point, it’s not a balanced comic situation.
So what’s Gary’s side of the story? We’re meant to feel his pain when Brooke’s brother, a men’s-chorus leader played by John Michael Higgins from A Mighty Wind, leads the dinner table in a campy impromptu version of ”Owner of a Lonely Heart” — one of those cringe-worthy prefab audience conversation pieces designed to warm the hearts of test marketers. But why should Gary care that his girlfriend’s brother is a showboating music queen? The Break-Up makes a lame attempt to balance our sympathies, but really, it’s the story of a nice girl making the eminently sensible decision to dump a psychotically selfish lout.
There are some energized arguments, even if most of them aren’t very funny. Aniston, so wan in the sparkling Friends With Money, has a feistier rhythm here, but she’s got to alter something — her hair, her gamine sweetness — if she wants to leave that manicured TV vibe behind her and become a movie star. The best bits are incidental: Vaughn’s chats with Jon Favreau as his bartender buddy, which are delightful interludes of jostling ego, and Judy Davis, looking like Anna Wintour redesigned by Tim Burton as an undead marionette, laying down the law as Aniston’s boss. I won’t tell you how it all ends (other than to note that it’s icky in its lack of conviction), but I will say this: Watching The Break-Up, it barely even occurred to me to think of Aniston’s breakup with Brad Pitt or her current union with Vaughn. Those relationships are real. This one, in every sense, is fake.