The Break-Up by Celestino Deleyto

I Can’t See Clearly


The Break-Up (Peyton Reed, 2006)

Celestino Deleyto


 (Warning: the following review contains constant spoilers, so, if you have not seen the film yet, you may want to refrain from reading on, although all romantic comedies end in the same way, right?)


A group of mostly teenage girls started clapping at the end of the screening of the film when I went to see it last week at a local cinema. Clapping at the end of a film is not a frequent reaction in Zaragoza – maybe the occasional blockbuster – so I began to wonder what in the film had elicited such a response, especially since the ending of a romantic comedy has almost universally been seen as the genre’s most distinctive convention. It may have been a purely aesthetic response compounded by the pretty sight of the beautifully-photographed streets of Chicago (courtesy of director of photography Eric Edwards), two good-looking stars smiling at each other and the timely beginning of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ in the soundtrack as the final credits start to roll. Such pleasures are often ignored by film critics and by spectators themselves when discussing movies, but they remain an important part of the viewing experience and they are felt ‘at gut level’ even if we don’t always like to admit it. Or it may have been the consequence of a release of tension after spending the final section of the film nervously trying to guess whether Brooke ( Anniston ) and Gary (Vaughn) will or will not end up together.


 What does actually happen at the end of the film? Do they or don’t they end up together? At first sight, they don’t: in the final scene, the two meet by chance in the street (in the film, Chicago looks like a cute small town, and not at all like a big metropolis) months after the break-up, have a brief, slightly embarrassed conversation and part ways with a vague promise of catching up with each other’s news before long, but the hostility between them seems to have definitely gone, their expressions may be interpreted as suggesting that they still like each other and, therefore, a reconciliation of sorts may be about to take place. Did the spectators like the ending because of the reconciliation or because, contradicting generic expectations, they do not get back together? Did they enjoy the fact that Brooke, although clearly unhappy with the sexist way in which Gary has been treating her during their relationship, still loves him, tries to win him back and, at the end, leaves a door open for a possible future together? Or did they like it because she, although clearly still in love with him, resigns herself to losing what she most wants for the sake of her dignity as a woman? Do these twenty-first-century young women prefer love and romance (even if it entails submission and saintly patience) or independence and equality (even if it entails loneliness and frustration)? Can we enjoy a romantic comedy in which desire is repressed or destroyed, or is sexual desire replaced by a different type of desire, one with which young women can identify more readily? If The Break-Up does not celebrate desire, what kind of a romantic comedy is it?


 One possible answer is that this is a very ambiguous – some would say, tendentiously ambiguous – type of romantic comedy. The film’s first central scene is a set piece in which Brooke engages in a long tirade against Gary for his disgusting male habits, his total disregard for her wishes and his reluctance to accept a truly egalitarian relationship in which not only do both partners work outside the house, but also share domestic responsibilities and, what is more important, look out for the other’s emotional welfare. Even though in these initial stages many spectators may still be influenced by the Friends’ Rachel side of Anniston’s star persona and we may still find it hard to see her as a hard-done-by young woman, the scene rings so true in its representation of a type of modern heterosexual relationships that some female spectators must have been tempted to clap at this early point, without waiting for the end. For the moment, it seems that the text is clearly siding with Brooke and that we are supposed to take Gary for the pathetic slob that he is. Yet, as the story of the break-up develops, and Gary refuses to admit the error of his ways while Brooke desperately tries to simultaneously keep him and change him, The Break-Up begins to celebrate Gary ’s ways and the opportunities for the spectator to sympathise with him and laugh at her proliferate. In its long middle section, the film concentrates on exploring the woman’s growing anxiety and despair – the film has a greater share of anxiety and despair than most romantic comedies – and the man’s more or less content adaptation to and enjoyment of the new status quo, in which they continue to share their apartment but lead increasingly separate lives. For most of this middle section, his life seems much more fun than hers. She still loves him but he seems perfectly happy without her.


  Gary changes in the final reel but when Brooke refuses to take him back he is less than distraught and he seems to have no problem recovering from the shock. He has already proved sufficiently that for the type of crude boyish pleasures that he enjoys most he does not need Brooke or any other ‘serious’ relationship with a woman. He is perfectly self-sufficient. So, if the text is saying that they do not get back together because they are incompatible, are we to surmise that this incompatibility is simply due to a neutral divergence between the two in terms of their interests and goals? In this case, at what point has the text abandoned its pop feminist discourse? And what kind of future awaits Brooke? Is loneliness or reluctance to engage in other relationships the reward she gets for her efforts? And if there is a chance that they get back together, does the film really want us to believe that things will be different? Has Brooke achieved her objective? What type of heterosexual relationship does The Break-Up promote? Since, as the genre’s demographic repeatedly proves, this is a type of film which is mostly targeted at women, what exactly is it telling the young women I saw at the cinema to do in order to relate to men? Or is it just telling them that, given contemporary young men’s Neanderthal minds, they might as well give up? Were the young women relieved that Brooke ends up alone, or relieved that she doesn’t?  

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