Quincy (Jamie Foxx) appears to have it all in Breakin’ All the Rules. After a sensual evening spent with his fashion model girlfriend Helen (Bianca Lawson), he strolls into work at Spoils Publications, his designer shoes and jaunty demeanor catching the eye of the several female assistants he passes en route to his big-windowed office.
Though he’s not precisely bumptious — he’s rather a nervous sort, truth be told — Quincy decides to make a public declaration of his hope for the future, inviting his cousin Evan (Morris Chestnut, who already starred in this movie, when it was called Two Can Play That Game) to watch him propose to Helen at a club. When she turns him down (as she’s on her way to Paris without him), 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. By the time Evan arrives on his doorstop, Quincy is reduced to a state of jibbering and twitching (a state that Foxx excels at imitating). 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 (undertaken for his snivelly boss at Spoils, Philip [Peter MacNicol]) and his recent devastation. 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.
As Quincy proceeds to follow the 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. Enter Nikki (Gabrielle Union). As Evan’s current girlfriend, she is, unbeknownst to her, approaching the three-month cut-off he imposes on all his relationships. Worried that she’s about to beat him to the breakup, Evan sends Quincy to meet her at a bar, in order to manipulate her in some not-so-clear manner; identities are mistaken, romantic hijinks follow.
A subplot to this more-or-less set of subplots (there’s no main plot that matters) 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.
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 hardly showed Foxx’s notorious energy, on display in both Ali and Bait; playing the (ass-kicking) girlfriend in both Bad Boys II and Cradle 2 the Grave was a likely well-paid backstep for Union after her virtuoso turn in Deliver Us From Eva.)
As lovers who lie to one another as a kind of mating ritual, Union and Foxx do about 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 sly and beguiling, playful and cute. And you keep wondering what either might do with material less average.