The problem with movies about open relationships is not unlike the problem with the relationships themselves: their unconventional nature has a way of sabotaging them, and their failure reflects poorly, and maybe unfairly, on even attempting it.
To its credit, Breaking Upwards is less about the gimmick of an open relationship than a couple unsure of where to go next. Zoe (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Daryl (Daryl Wein), in their early 20s, have been together for four years. Still affectionate but bored and a little antsy, they decide to halve their commitment. They will be together four days a week, and apart for three. They make lists of what this will accomplish: independence, trying new things. Daryl quietly crosses out “seeing other people” when he realizes it’s not on Zoe’s list.
It’s on her mind, though, and Daryl’s, and they both stumble through new flirtations and corresponding jealousy. They make an effectively contentious couple, prickly but not so miserable that they cease to make sense. Daryl’s whininess seems born of an earnest frustration; Zoe grouses about being the shortest actress at an audition, and shoos away people who try to touch her face.
Despite this specificity, though, Breaking Upwards moves through a haze. While Daryl and Zoe plan their separation with meticulous rules and goals, the movie is haphazardly assembled; scenes feel disconnected, with little logical progression. The narrative has more drive and focus than the mumblecore movies focused on artist-class, bike-riding, romantically confused 20somethings. Yet even with actors behind the camera and fully invested in the material — Wein directed the film, and co-wrote it with Peter Duchan and Lister-Jones, basing it on their real-life relationship and using their real names — the movie wanders.
At times, its grasp of time and incident feels downright hazy. In one scene, Daryl meets an alluring young woman named Erika (Olivia Thirlby) at a synagogue meet-and-greet, and declines her invitation to hang out with her friends. Thirty minutes later in movie time (and after an indeterminate amount of time in the characters’ lives), we see Daryl and Erika making out. Then she vanishes from the film, except as vague jealousy fodder.
Hiring Thirlby, a wonderful actress, to play a couple of 30-second scenes is puzzling, bordering on perverse, but consistent with the unfocused social circle the movie provides for Daryl and Zoe. Friends and potential hook-ups are introduced only to disappear, or pop back up after long absences. Their parents provide a more constant presence (Peter Friedman plays Daryl’s father), particularly their mothers (Julie White and Andrea Martin). Daryl and Zoe are native New Yorkers, with families readily available for face-to-face counseling rather than distant phone calls (Daryl even sort of lives at home, somewhere in Manhattan).
These unusually frank parent-child relationships have a testy, off-kilter humor, and so do many stray moments and snatches of dialogue throughout Breaking Upwards. Despite the potential for navel-gazing, it feels more expansively detailed than a diary entry; the photography captures a vivid New York, with bright, saturated colors and glaring whites, making the most of the film’s DIY look.
It’s all the more disappointing, then, that the film loses energy. By the time Zoe and Daryl begin to explore an open relationship in earnest, the movie has only offered some predictable resentment and lots of petty sniping. Opening up their relationship and spending time apart does not, unsurprisingly, provide an escape from ennui. Neither does it save Breaking Upwards from disappointing tedium.