The Cringeworthiness of Re-Watching The Break-Up

When The Break-Up came out in 2006, it was on the heels of Jennifer Aniston’s own highly public break-up with Brad Pitt—or rather, she was dumped by Brad in favor of his Mr. and Mrs. Smith co-star, Angelina Jolie. Apparently in desperate need of a rebound, Aniston turned to no other than her own co-star of the moment, Vince Vaughn. As filming got underway, the duo’s professional rapport soon became personal, making the ultimately meta themes of the film all the more uncomfortable, what with Vinnifer’s own break-up imminent by the time shooting wrapped.

As The Break-Up commences on the blip of happiness that occurs when you first meet someone, fall in love and start to careen into the trap of domesticity, the shortness of screen time given to this part of a relationship is telling of just how ephemeral the good times are—how brief the honeymoon period is, if you will. For one minute Brooke Meyers (Aniston) and Gary Grobowski (Vaughn)—Polish and proud—happily unite together to make all the photographic memories that will later be a source of torment, buy a condo and then, for Gary especially, succumb to the banal habits of living with someone for long enough. The next minute, of course, it’s all crumbling, and for the most textbook reasons that no amount of love can seem to salvage. For Brooke, her vexation with Gary’s laziness and inattentiveness to all the things she does for him, their friends and the condo is what reaches a crescendo on a night when they’re having their families over for a dinner party. Gary’s inability to bring her the exact number of lemons she asked him for to create a centerpiece for the table is what breaks the camel’s back. And though Gary can’t fathom how she could possibly be that upset over something so frivolous, it all traces back to their disparate principles and passions. Brooke possesses a fervor for Gary that he simply can’t seem to mirror back, particularly after hours spent standing on a tour bus (for the company he co-owns with his two brothers, Dennis [Vincent D’Onofrio] and Lupus [Cole Hauser]). As he explains to Brooke in the face of what he later casts aspersions on as her constant nagging, all he wants to do when he comes home is unwind, consisting of the clichely laddish activities of watching sports or playing video games. But with Brooke’s constant guilt trips and what Gary interprets as her thinking that nothing he ever does is good enough, he finally shouts at her, “I just wanna be left the hell alone!”

Subsequently, Gary is, for all intents and purposes, nonplussed when Brooke, in the heat of her anger and his lack of caring, breaks up with him. Pushed to her brink, she declares, “I’m done! I don’t deserve this. I really do not deserve this. I deserve somebody who gives a shit. I’m not spending one more second of this life with some inconsiderate prick. You’re a prick!”

Thus, the gauntlet is thrown down and, Brooke, who had hoped her threat of breaking up would compel Gary to get his act together, is only further let down all the more as she is subjected to his petulant and childish behavior while the wheels of selling their condo are set in motion. This result, however, was the exact opposite of what Brooke had expected or intended. Forgetting once again the disparateness of their love, she had somehow envisioned that he would fight for her. And yet, most men in Gary’s position would act in a similar manner, too daft to realize that all women want is a little recognition now and again—occasionally engaging in dramatic gestures in order to attempt getting it.

As Brooke explains to her sister, Addie (Joey Lauren Adams), “I don’t want to break up with him. I don’t. I just want him to say thank you. I want him to want to do the dishes. I want him to take me to the ballet. I want him to get me twelve lemons, you know…” Her point being, of course, that it’s the small gestures in a relationship that matter—that add up to a person feeling appreciated and treated well.

For any girl age twenty-five and under who watched The Break-Up when it first came out, because yes, that is the general demographic that it was geared toward at the time of its release—when “Hollywoodized” rom-coms were still semi-bankable—it didn’t come across as harrowing as it does now. With the perspective of time and perhaps our own Brooke-like experiences with men since the year of the movie’s release, it suddenly feels all too resonant—more like a horror movie of romance that Blue Valentine later perfected. Creating a double effect of sadness, the women who watched The Break-Up when it first came out could never have believed in its prophetic qualities regarding their own trajectory, for every woman in her lifetime (at least those not being whisked away to another planet by Elon Musk) will inevitably fall prey to the certitude of dissatisfaction in monogamy.

The Break-Up, though generally scathed in reviews, blazed the trail in many regards for films that would be permitted the luxury of all-out cynicism in their portrayal of love. The most extreme example of late, mother!, even borrows a sentiment directly from The Break-Up, when Brooke tells Gary after he finally makes the grand gesture she was looking for too late, “I don’t know what to say… I don’t feel the same way. I just…I don’t know. Oh, God. I just, I think…I don’t think I have anything left to give.” This is the exact phrase used by Jennifer Lawrence just before Javier Bardem rips out her heart (not a figure of speech).

What The Break-Up thus served to accent in a way that rom-coms of its nature never had before was one very common flaw in the way men and women interact with one another after the romance element of a relationship has fallen by the wayside. To quote Brooke, “Our entire relationship. I’ve gone above and beyond for you. For us… All I want is for you to just show me that you care.” Apart from spelling it out to Gary in this very straightforward manner, he never would have attempted to show this desired caring of his own volition. When the two see one another again much later, there is a zen about both of them. Yet it is a bittersweet zen, as though they have both accepted that they could never give each other what he or she wanted. This highlights another common affliction in monogamy: the suppression of one’s true self to accommodate the wants and needs of the other person. In the end, Brooke realized this was the primary source of her unhappiness in the partnership.

After the film came out, Aniston stated in an interview with Vogue, “I call Vince my defibrillator… He literally brought me back to life. My first gasp of air was a big laugh! It was great. I love him. He’s a bull in a china shop. He was lovely and fun and perfect for the time we had together. And I needed that. And it sort of ran its course.” This sentiment, it seems, perfectly reflected the fate of Brooke and Gary—even for as enamored of one another as they were, the inequity of their devotion and the circumstances that conspired to sustain their division were stronger than the love.