[27 October 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We were actually promised the dog from Men in Black, so we got his stand-in, who was Chin, and Chin had his own stand-in.
—Daniel Taplitz, commentary track, Breakin’ All the Rules: Special Edition
“After we wrapped one day,” recalls producer Lisa Tornell, “There were these two big burly grips, kinda walking off the set, and one of them just looked at the other completely honestly—they didn’t know we were behind them—and said, ‘You know, I’m not gay, but if I were ever gonna go that way, I’d go for Morris Chestnut’” She laughs along with director Daniel Taplitz and Gabrielle Union, her co-commentators for Columbia’s new DVD, Breakin’ All the Rules: Special Edition. All rules of attraction and self-definition are just off when it comes to the utterly beautiful and notoriously nice Chestnut.
As he often does, Chestnut plays a supporting role in Breakin’ Al the Rules, here helping Jamie Foxx to achieve a remarkable mix of poignancy and hilarity. Foxx’s Quincy Watson beings the movie looking like he “has it all”: a cool cousin Evan (Chestnut, who actually starred in the first version of this movie, Two Can Play That Game), a promising career at Spoils Publications, and a fashion model girlfriend, Helen (Bianca Lawson). At work, he’s the man, his designer shoes and jaunty demeanor catching the eye of the several female assistants he passes en route to his big-windowed office. At night, he hits the clubs, swank and much admired.
Though Quincy is hardly cocky (he’s more a nervous sort, actually), he decides to take a big chance and make a public display of his love, inviting Evan to watch him propose to Helen at their favorite nightclub. When she turns him down (as she’s on her way to Paris with someone else), Quincy is stunned. Apparently this self-styled player had no idea what his life was really about.
Here begins the movie’s thematic focus: emotional and professional success is achieved by making up rules. Believing that Helen has not followed “rules” (of fairness, or even mercy), Quincy descends into deep depression. He quits his job, stops shaving, and starts wearing Helen’s flower-spewed terrycloth robe (at this point, Union notes, “And if you’re a Sanford & Son fan, Jamie bears an uncanny resemblance to Rollo”). By the time Evan arrives on his doorstop, Quincy is reduced to a state of jibbering and twitching (Foxx is at once pathetic, comic, and utterly convincing). His one accomplishment in the time since Helen’s rejection is the writing of a series of how-to-break-up-better letters that combine his research on firing employees, inspired by his recent devastation and encouraged by his snivelly boss at Spoils, Philip (Peter MacNicol, whose first appearance in the film provokes Taplitz to compare him to Foxx: ” I don’t even think they’re of the same species”). Evan tests out the how-to on a girl he’s trying to dump. When it works, Evan has a brainstorm: Spoils publishes The Breakup Handbook, and it’s a best-seller.
Impressed by Quincy’s success, Evan comes by his new expensively decorated, sky-high office, to get some dating advice. Their chat turns into a delicate dance, men exchanging information, but not giving up too much of their macho posing. Quincy warns his friend not to get too involved with his current girl, as he’s now approaching the three-month cut-off point. Watch out, warns Quincy, “One day a girl’s gonna dump you before you get a chance to dump her. It’s gonna have you very Eric Benet—sensitive.”
Quincy proceeds to follow another set of rules, for celebrity authors (the tv talk show appearances, the in-store book-signings), he’s also beset with the obvious question: does the expert on breaking up have a love life? Er, no, er, maybe. The DVD’s mini-raft of extras includes an extended version of one tv interview with Quincy, as well as outtakes, the strangely and sadly, colorized Three Stooges short, “Hoi Polloi,” and an 18-minute, rudimentary “making-of” documentary called “The Breakup Handbook” (“After I read it, I just had some good feelings about it,” says Morris Chestnut; “Jamie was my first choice,” says Taplitz).
Easily the most entertaining and enlightening extra is the commentary track. For instance, during Evan and Quincy’s talk, Union helpfully notes that Chestnut picks up a football to show his nervousness, a prop she calls “interesting” for its reference to Chestnut’s first film role, as high school football star Ricky in John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood: “Ricky didn’t make it to USC at the end of that film.” At which point Taplitz adds, “And he’s still trying to make it. Morris has one trick, and he just plays it over and over again.” Tornell makes the other obvious point, “I love the chemistry between these two, I think it’s great. You can really believe that they’ve known each for years, and they’ve been buddies.” Union caps it: “And that’s funny, because they are. We all shop at the Ralph’s… We all live about five minutes within one another.” The girl’s got great wit, on top of everything else.
And so, at last, she comes into the film, as Nikki, Evan’s girlfriend, the one about to be dumped. In order to preempt what he assumes is her decision to dump him, Evan sends Quincy to meet her at a bar (where Union observes on the audio track, “Now that push-up bra I’m wearing is available at most Victoria’s Secrets worldwide, and also… if there’s any actors out there, you cross your hands, and it lifts your boobs up”). Instructed to manipulate Nikki in some not-so-clear manner, Quincy quite loses his “bravado” (as Tornell observes, “There’s just great tension here”), then agrees with her that the plan (which he divulges, not knowing that she’s the “one”), is silly. They’re clearly mutually smitten, and romantic troubles commence.
The following action is less a plot than a set of subplots. One involves whiny Philip, who is looking to break up with his own scheming, gold-digging girlfriend Rita (Jennifer Esposito). Like Evan, she endeavors to outwit her partner and stave off the imminent dismissal; during this process, she mistakes Evan for Quincy (the man she knows is advising Philip), seduces him, and then imagines she’s got him where she wants him: compromised, lusting after her, vulnerable, something—it’s not exactly clear what’s at issue here or why anyone would care about Quincy’s (or Evan’s, for that matter) sexual liaisons.
At the same time, Quincy is falling in love with Nikki, who has told him her name is Mary. His desire is visualized when he gazes on her (surreptitiously of course) as she gazes on Heather Headley singing at a concert. He’s captivated by this girl, Nikki/Mary, who is so lovely in her Halle Berry haircut and so ostensibly earnestly moral. She’s a nurse, which reduces to ancient-seeming comedy involving an elderly white male patient who repeatedly harasses her whenever she tries to massage or even speak with him. It’s actually hard to tell which jokes are more annoying: those embodied by the horny old man or by the drunk, farty Pug dog that Helen has left in Quincy’s care (Taplitz admits that the dog is based on a “real dog”: “I had a girlfriend many years ago that had two pugs, and I just didn’t know what to do with them at first, they were such foreign creatures”).
In the face of endless mix-ups and multiple supporting characters’ efforts to control situations that hardly seem worth controlling (such is the usual measly lot of the rom-com minor player). Nikki and Quincy, on the other hand, seem less invested in control, at least after their first gaming is revealed, and instead seek the relative abandon offered by love, which they agree is a kind of insanity. This might be demonstrated, they agree, if you can bite through your own skin; though both attempt this feat (presumably, overcoming a pain threshold that somehow marks insanity), only one is successful by film’s end. Love = self-consumption?
Despite the film’s many detours, the central movement is ordained from the moment Quincy and Nikki first come together. Breakin’ All the Rules, in other words, breaks no rules. Mechanical and unimaginative, it doesn’t nearly do justice to its central performers. Foxx and Union both have serious range that has yet to be fully exploited. (FX’s Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story more or less Foxx’s notorious energy, on display in most all his other work, from Ali and Bait to Collateral and the upcoming Ray.)
As lovers who lie to one another as a kind of mating ritual, Union and Foxx do as well as possible. See especially, the well choreographed meeting in a park, where they step around an archer statue, peering through his bow and arms as they struggle to “answer honestly” in response to one another’s questions. They’re movie stars, yes, playful and cute, but they’re also utterly beguiling.