Let’s Just Be Friends

The awkward scenes of The Break-Up.

Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston in TheBreak-Up 

About 10 minutes into The Break-Up (Universal), the new comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, I was overcome by a strange feeling. Aniston plays Brooke, an uptight gallery worker. Vaughn plays Gary, a “wacky” Polish-American tour guide. They stand in the Chicago condo they share, bickering over who should do the dishes. The argument escalates into more personal territory, with Aniston accusing Vaughn of not caring enough about her. The scene keeps going and going, and then it occurs to me: These two are actually going to … act. Did I walk into a Woody Allen movie by mistake?

I’m in favor of more acting in Hollywood movies, but it’s a lot to ask of our celebrities. Once they establish a persona, we do not like them to deviate from it much, and it would be hard to find, at present, two stars more trapped in their personas than Vaughn and Aniston. In The Break-Up, Vaughn is meant to be an overweight working-class schlub, but he can’t remove that winner’s glint from his eye. (He’s entered Bill Murray territory; you like him just for showing up.) Aniston fares slightly better as a neurotic but “fun” girl, capable of eating a hot dog at a Cubs game. Sometime during the Brad Pitt years, however, she acquired model-perfect posture and a general air of unease. Watching her stiff performance brought to mind a great John Updike quote: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”

The Break-Up does have two advantages: Like those penguins slithering across the Antarctic ice, men and women everywhere search for a mate, and The Break-Up is a tolerable date movie. It also provides an opportunity to indulge your inner tabloid reader. Aniston and Vaughn became a couple during the making of the film, but I couldn’t detect much evidence of their off-set liaison. It’s probably bad news for the movie’s fortunes that Vaughn generates more sparks with his old Swingers flame Jon Favreau—who plays Gary’s best friend—than he does with Aniston. Vaughn is at his best when the movie allows him to revert to type. He has several tour-bus scenes that are basically occasions for stand-up, and he may be the best trash-talker in the history of cinema—who else could ad-lib a cascade of insults (directed at a 12-year-old) during a game of Madden football?

For her part, Aniston does not have many occasions to cut loose and show off her inner Rachel—in one scene her character is declaring her independence; in the next she’s thinking up some trick to get Gary’s attention. This may be an attempt to portray a realistic pingponging of emotions, but mostly Aniston’s eyes appear very, very moist all the time. It also doesn’t help matters (in terms of characterization) that the camera lavishes the sort of attention on her midriff that was once given to Marlene Dietrich’s legs. The midriff keeps showing up, framed in expensive, tailored, “casual” outfits, as though it were trying to steal the movie.

Chicago, as always, seems extremely attractive on-screen (there is only the barest hint of the town’s cruel winter). The art direction and clothes are true to a certain cross-section of young professionals from that town, where everyone looks like they just came from a Banana Republic shopping spree. Of the supporting cast, Jason Bateman has a funny, mock-sinceredelivery as a creepy real-estate broker, and John Michael Higgins earns some cheap laughs appearing as the dreaded a cappella singer. With this genial bunch, and the occasional good line, there’s no reason not to see The Break-Up, but there’s also no reason, assuming the date is going well, not to skip it and order dessert.