There are a whole bunch of different movies circulating within the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break-Up, and every single one of them is more enjoyable than the one they're stuck in. Director Peyton Reed's film concerns the battle of wills that commences once Vaughn's Gary and Aniston's Brooke decide to split, but here are five of The Break-Up's subplots that, I'm guessing, would have made for far more entertaining feature-length viewing
- The Gary and Johnny movie: Gary's best friend is a bartender, played by Jon Favreau, and their scenes together have a spontaneity and freshness that puts The Break-Up's tired wisecracks and embarrassing stabs at "heart" to shame. (Their dialogue sounds mostly improvised.) Anyone with fond memories of the duo's sweetly foul banter in Swingers will be hugely relieved every time Gary escapes clingy Brooke for the chance to natter away at his pal's Chicago watering hole; their scenes suggest Swingers II, which is one of the few sequels that I - and most people I know - would eagerly pay to see.
- The Gary and his brothers movie: Aside from his time spent with Johnny, the happiest we see Gary is at his job, acting as a Chicago tour-guide on the double-decker-bus service he runs with his brothers Lupus (Cole Hauser), an inveterate horn-dog, and Dennis (Vincent D'Onofrio), a slow-witted bureaucrat. Gary's playful harassment of his patrons (again, seemingly improvised) provides some welcome levity, and when Hauser and D'Onofrio get a rare moment that's all theirs - when Lupus tries to get Gary back into the dating scene, or Dennis rants about the lack of respect Gary shows him The Break-Up, momentarily, suggests the familial tensions and buried respect of Edward Burns' The Brothers McMullen. Except, you know, funny.
- The Gary and Brooke's family movie: Like Gary, Brooke has on-screen relatives, the most prominent being a cluelessly flamboyant brother (John Michael Higgins), prone to a cappella singing at improper occasions, and a blowsy mother (Ann-Margret), who beams at her son's fey warblings. Ann-Margret, as she should, effortlessly conveys a musical-comedy wannabe slowly going to seed, and Higgins does a type-A variant on his neuftet ringleader in A Mighty Wind; the sight of Higgins kicking Vaughn's ass during a men's-chorus rehearsal doesn't make much sense in the context of The Break-Up, but a whole film devoted to their passive-aggressive needling could have been comedy heaven, especially if Christopher Guest got his hands on the material.
- The Brooke and the art gallery movie: In The Break-Up, Brooke works at an art gallery, which is movie shorthand telling us a female character is smart, creative, and, most likely, criminally undervalued by her employer. (The male counterpart in Hollywood films works in advertising.) Her assistant, Christopher (Justin Long), is - like her brother, oddly enough - a mincing, amusing sweetie who chirps, "Happy Holidays!" at the beginning of summer. (There are no gay characters in The Break-Up; there are only assumed gay characters.) Her boss, Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis), is an egocentric harridan who, gleaning Brooke's romantic travails, figuratively slaps her by hissing, "I will give you one day ... to be sad." Long's big-hearted empathy and Davis' shrewish contempt give the film some spiky scenes. And by "some," unfortunately, I mean three.
- The Gary and Brooke romantic-comedy movie: Wait a minute, you're saying. Isn't The Break-Up already a romantic comedy? Only for the first five minutes. The film starts with the leads' getting-to-know-you flirtation at a Cubs game, followed by an opening-credits pastiche of photos of the duo during "the happy years," and this brief prelude indicates that Vaughn and Aniston may actually have some on-screen chemistry. Vaughn's disarming chatter, continually running over Aniston's responses, prepares you for fireworks between the two that never materialize again - Aniston's giggling, incredulous reactions to Gary's chutzpah are her most honest moments - and even those snapshots are more animated than the sequences that follow. Enjoy those first five minutes while you can; they're the last time you'll see Vaughn and Aniston in a relaxed and goofy state.
Had The Break-Up veered off on to any of these tangents, with their inspired supporting turns, the results would almost certainly have been more enjoyable - more unexpected, more human - than the tired spectacle we have now. (And I didn't even mention the contributions of Joey Lauren Adams, her salty squeak of a voice enlivening the role of Brooke's best pal, or Jason Bateman, lending his Arrested Development-honed dryness to the role of the leads' realtor.) But no. They're mere fringe moments, and the film's meat, as it were, is devoted to the achingly formulaic, deathly dull sight of Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston bickering over who gets possession of their condo, and who doesn't appreciate whom more. Audiences will be forgiven for wishing they were at one of those imaginary movies instead.
THE LIVING SEA
The latest presentation at the Putnam Museum & IMAX Theatre is the aqua-doc The Living Sea, which takes us on a tour of the world's oceans both above and below sea level. We follow a Coast Guard rescue team as it practices its life-saving techniques, join a deep-sea research crew as it probes the oceanic depths, and ride along with surfers as they hang 10 (or whatever it is surfers do), and all the while Meryl Streep narrates in soothing tones - her mellifluous voice itself suggesting a relaxing bath with the water at just the right temperature - while low-key Sting music plays on the soundtrack. Many of the underwater sequences, with their extraordinary colors, play like live-action scenes from the first reel of Finding Nemo, and the film, occasionally vibrant, is never less than beautifully shot. It's a perfectly pleasant entertainment. It's also, even at only 50 minutes, more than a bit boring.
Part of the disappointment lies in the timing of the film's Putnam release; recent IMAX excursions such as Bugs!, The Human Body, and Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon were much livelier entertainments, peppered with refreshingly ironic humor and visuals, and the overly earnest The Living Sea - first released theatrically way back in 1995 - feels like old news, the VH1 to the other films' MTV. (In the press packets handed out at The Living Sea's sneak preview, Streep's biography referred to her forthcoming role opposite Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County.)
But the bigger problem is that while our eyes are being engaged in the film, our brains aren't. Personally, I find 50 minutes the perfect length for an IMAX entertainment - that screen is so overwhelming that it's best appreciated in limited doses - but it doesn't allow enough time for us to really learn from any of The Living Sea's numerous educational detours. We surf, we look at whales, we soak in the pretty images, and we go home. The IMAX format has provided plenty of cinematic wonders over the years, and it's always a kick visiting the area's biggest screen. I just think it can be put to better use than serving as the area's biggest fish tank.