The Break-Up (2006)

Cynthia Fuchs
Former lovers, now hostile roommates, bus tour guide Gary (VINCE VAUGHN) and art dealer Brooke (JENNIFER ANISTON) "share" a quiet moment.

For all that goes wrong with The Break-Up, the most compelling question it raises has to do with the state of the romantic comedy.

The Break-Up

Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, Jon Favreau, Joey Lauren Adams, Vincent D'Onofrio, Judy Davis
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-06-02 (General release)
I do parts based on what speaks to me and what I feel I could do a good job at. This just happens to be that.

-- Jennifer Aniston, Entertainment Weekly (26 May 2006)

Beware the meet-cute at a Cubs game. Much as Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) are clearly not meant for one another, and much as he appears to think they are exactly that, the start of The Break-Up is all about the hook-up. He's with someone named Johnny O (Jon Favreau), she's with a nameless other guy (whom he aggressively labels "the guy with the tucked-in stuff"), and he buys her a hot dog, encouraging her to take it with "a condiment." "You're crazy," she observes. And that, more or less, is that.

The opening credits still-photos montage tracks the brief and ostensibly intense trajectory of their romance, as they make photo-booth faces, join a bowling club, attend a costume party dressed as cows, kiss in the rain, kiss near a Christmas tree, and kiss in bed (who's taking this snapshot is not clear). They smile, they cuddle, they gaze. They look rom-comically content, if not precisely appealing. They buy a condo.

Then comes the kibosh indicated by the film's title, ostensibly brought on by an utterly mad dinner with parents and siblings. This even though it's clear from their first actual scene in the condo exposes the contrivance of the relationship and the fight, that actually begins before the relatives arrive, as Gary, a Chicago tour bus guide in business with his slouchy brothers, is obviously and oh so odiously Brooke's opposite that you can't help but wonder what that opening montagey business was pretending. Their conflict is drearily familiar: he's a resentful perpetual adolescent and she's an upscaley art gallery manager who wears perfectly tailored designer outfits and a spectacular haircut. They're types and the film doesn't have a new thing to say about them.

On the night of the break-up, she's preparing dinner, awaiting Gary's arrival after he's spent a long day on his feet, telling tourists what to see. The fact that she's also been on her feet seems not to enter onto Gary's radar, who slumps himself onto the couch and sets up to watch sports (and no, apparently he can't be any more original than that). Immediately, he fails her (he brings home the wrong number of lemons) and she claims he doesn't appreciate her. It's not as if this particular conflict needs to be repeated, as it is the typical rom-com conflict, but The Break-Up brings a grim vehemence; if not innovative, it is unusual for a movie termed a "comedy."

Just so, Brooke and Gary take up newly militant residence in their respective condo corners: she claims the bedroom, he the living room with convertible sofa (no sheets for him, but he's a guy who doesn't care about such niceties). Their choices of battles hardly seem sane (this presumably attributable to irrational rage roiling between them), but more to the point, they're not very interesting. He tends to perform Vaughn's patented motor-mouth disparagement routine, hitting buttons sure to infuriate Brooke (her gratingly intense, a-cappella-group-singing brother Richard [John Michael Higgins] is "gay," which she can't see, her sister's promiscuous -- just why these zings affect Brooke so severely is unclear). Without similar resources (she's no Rosalind Russell), Brooke takes the apparently only other option: she schemes like a screwball comedy heiress might, though without the sweet energy or delirious abandon.

Gary's first all-out assault involves territory (no pissing, but you get the idea): he purchases the pool table he's always wanted and she refused to allow into her precisely feng-shuied space, invites his friends (including Jason Bateman, mostly looking confused) for cigars and beers, and plays loud boy-rock. She comes home from work, turns her smile upside down, and retreats to her room, where she cranks up her Alanis Morissette. Brooke's most frequently used tactic is, in fact, frowning. While it's not a very effective strategy, it does mean that she spends most of her movie looking unhappy.

And no wonder, for Brooke's responses to Gary tend to be derived from advice she solicits from her happily married/mother of two best friend Addie (Joey Lauren Adams) or her employer Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis), a haughty gallery owner who is stereotypically self-absorbed and humorless. Addie observes that men are like children who "test boundaries," Marilyn Dean (who refers to herself in the third person and by both names) comes up with the show-stopper: she sends Brooke to her spa for the "Telly Savalas."

After a brief, pert rip-off of The 40-Year-Old Virgin's painful-grimace-during-waxing scene, Brooke returns to the condo in order to show off her new visible pudenda (Aniston's naked walk from bedroom to kitchen and back -- with crucial areas blocked out by Vaughn's head and other objects, generated early "buzz"). Gary looks suitably impressed, and the scene cuts to another. That is, the show stopped, and then, it goes on, as if that whole Telly Savalas thing never happened. (It's just as well.)

Gary's movie is equally erratic and episodic. He has a few advisors, namely Johnny O and his brothers, with whom he is in the bus tour business, anxiously ambitious manager Dennis (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the swaggering, bizarrely named mechanic Lupus (Cole Hauser). The latter considers himself a ladies' man, though his effort to show Gary the ropes at a nightclub (which he insists is "stacked with top-shelf dumb-ass") reveals that his moves are retarded and his eyebrows odd. Johnny O -- usually in the bar he tends -- makes acute-seeming observations ("She hurt you," or, later, the reverse, "You never let your guard down, that poor girl never had a chance") but Gary remains pretty much in the dark, and oh yes, miserably self-absorbed. (This most visible in a scene where he invites buxom girls who don't speak to play strip poker at the condo: the resulting image -- Gary seated on the couch in his boxers with a bottle of booze -- is so sad and mean, you wonder if it's supposed to be in yet another movie).

For all that goes wrong with The Break-Up, the most compelling question it raises has little to do with Gary or Brooke. It also has little to do with Vaughn and Aniston (though some viewers will wonder why she's paid so much money to pursue projects that "speak to" her). The question has to do with the state of the romantic comedy during a cynical, prepackaged, reality-tv moment. Can this film be made in a way that's new, or at least new-like? While last year's Mr. and Mrs. Smith offered an entertaining answer in the genre mash-up, for most often the rom-com per se appears stuck in one gear, where boys must grow up and women must be patient. It's past time to move on.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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