A lot to talk about this week aside from the movie, so in order to make this easier for skimmers, if you want to read about why The Break-Up isn't as bad as you've heard, start with the paragraph marked with a *. If you want to read about the trouble with modern comedies, go to **. And if you want to read a reaction to the current blog-storm surrounding the irrelevance of critics, go to ***. And as always, at ****, there's trailer stuff.

*For a couple of weeks now, The Break-Up has been gaining a rep as the "problematic" summer blockbuster: the one that comes along every year, maybe better than summer movie audiences deserve. Don't take that the wrong way, you summer movie audience types. In the movie critic business, every agenda has a counter-agenda, and when the advance screening scribes start to align against a particular film, some folks consider that a seal of approval. The advance complaints about The Break-Up–that it's awkward, unfunny and sour–got the movie bumped off the "tabloid hype job" list and made it a must-see. Because any movie that's making preview audiences uncomfortable is, at the least, unlikely to be run-of-the-mill.

And sure enough, The Break-Up has a distinctive flavor. A lot of credit is due to Peyton Reed, the talented young director behind Bring It On and Down With Love (not to mention some cool Superchunk videos). Reed builds the movie around reaction shots, and he comes up with a few doozies, including one where separated lovers Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston lock eyes across a room while Vaughn spitefully gets a lapdance from a topless party girl, and an earlier one right after The Big Argument, as Aniston listens to Vaughn walk across their wooden condo floor and out their chain-locked front door. (Actually the sound design of this movie is as vital as the visual … dig the way the "pause game" sound gets emphasized whenever Vaughn has to put down his controller and contemplate how he's messing up his life.)

But Vaughn deserves a nod too, since it was reportedly his idea to make the movie in the first place, and to make it so uncompromising. The Break-Up is about how a likable-but-self-obsessed dude learns that charm alone won't keep him warm; and it's also about how a sweet, affectionate woman realizes that unless she tells people what she wants, she can't expect them to know. In other words, it's about a perfect couple figuring out that their relationship was built on presumption and self-delusion.

**But Vaughn and company have a hard time finding the comedy in all this. Vaughn gets a lot of mileage from his usual mile-a-minute patter, but otherwise the movie can't seem to decide if it wants to go for "I'll show her"/"I'll show him" slapstick toppers (as in the scene where Vaughn gets knocked around by Aniston's gay brother), or something more painfully true (as in the scene where a game of Pictionary turns into an outtake from a Cassavetes film).

In part, The Break-Up's inconsistent tone is just part of a larger trend in contemporary movie comedy. I can't think of a single one of the recent comedy hits– Wedding Crashers, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, Dodgeball, Old School, you-name-it–that's not sluggish and sloppy. Even though Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, the Wilson brothers and Ben Stiller are all smart, funny guys.

Of course that's kind of the way it goes with comedy. It's a loose genre, clumsy by design, and the tighter it gets, the more it becomes "amusing" instead of "funny." (See: The comedies of Jacques Tati, which I love, but which are almost theoretically humorous rather than actually so.) Also, as an aside, I should add that I may not be the ideal audience for the jocular, oafish "guy" comedy that Vaughn and a lot of his cohorts push. I like sports, poker, beer, and sitting around watching TV; but I don't play videogames, I don't read Maxim, I don't like fake breasts or waxed-bald bikini areas, and I've never really been into having cut-down wars with my buddies. To put it in Cheers terms, I'm more comfortable around Frasier Cranes than Sam Malones.

Which provides an awkward transition into the other major problem with The Break-Up: It doesn't really feel like a movie … let alone a blockbuster. It feels like television. As my pal Keith astutely notes in his A.V. Club pan, The Break-Up is "like watching the 'we were on a break' episode of Friends stretched to feature length."

Then again, that episode was one of Friends' best, because it used the character-building strengths of serialized storytelling and the intimate space of the television screen to capture both the slow-motion decay and last-straw calamity of a lost-cause relationship. It's something TV does especially well, working gradually toward moments where two people face each other and say everything that the viewers at home have been thinking for weeks.

The way The Break-Up plays out reminds me more of the middle stretch of the Sam-and-Diane romance on Cheers, when the couple splits over Diane's decision to pose for a portrait that she's sure Sam won't "get." After she walks out the door, he rips the wrapping off the painting, stares at it for a second, and then says, "Wow." And the screen goes black and the season ends, with Sam realizing exactly what he's lost.

The Break-Up's big finale isn't as good as that Cheers episode, but it shoots for some of the same effect, and gets bonus points for the attempt. The movie's a noble failure, and intermittently entertaining to boot.

***But how will audiences react? Thus far, the relentless promotional efforts of Aniston and Vaughn have paid off, and the movie has jumped to a much bigger opening weekend than pundits expected. Surely this will add to the "critics don't matter anymore" hand-wringing that's spread throughout the entertainment media ever since The Da Vinci Code shook off scathing reviews to become an international smash. (This is apparently the navel-gazing meme of '06, like the box-office slump was in '05.) Personally, I'm not convinced that critics have any more or less influence over what audiences go see than they ever had. Art-house films and better-than-expected B-movies need all the critical support they can muster, but blockbusters have a momentum that critics can't really affect.

And anyway, I've never been comfortable with the idea that the sole role of a movie critic is to tell people how to spend their money. I've always seen the task at hand as fitting fragments of pop into a larger mosaic, and engaging in the age-old discussions over what constitutes "quality," and what art says (or fails to say) about the times in which it's made. Ideally, criticism should be an ongoing conversation with the readers … which means ideally, readers should see even the movies that we give bad grades.

If you ask me, the people who are coming out the worst in this recent run of critically derided blockbusters are those pundits, who've turned box office rankings and year-end awards into one never-ending rotisserie league, with "the tracking" and "the insider buzz" supposedly telling us all we need to know about a movie's chances before it opens. Or maybe the problem is that the Hollywood number-crunchers the pundits rely on have been pulling their data from the wrong mines. Either way, pundit deluxe Jeffrey Wells has already copped this weekend to missing the target on The Break-Up, which he'd buried weeks ago. What's that overused William Goldman quote? About how nobody knows anything?

****

This week's trailers-in-brief: I'm not sure I approve of the premise of Accepted, which seems to be about how the pursuit of knowledge is only worthwhile if you get to do what you want, not what smart people think you should do. But I confess I laughed at the trailer, and especially the line, "I hope you have hobo-stab insurance." Maybe it's just that the word "hobo" is never not funny. And though we're all sick of hearing about Snakes On A Plane, the latest self-conscious teaser trailer–not yet on-line, except in bootleg form–is a hoot and a half. Still looks like a hit, but what the hell do I know?


Next week: Cars!

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