There are actors, and then there are movie stars. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn are movie stars. And that fact is rammed home to us every second of 'The Break-Up,' a surprisingly acidic romantic comedy that, whatever its virtues, probably wouldn't have made twelve dollars at the box office was it not for the high-wattage chemistry between its two stars.
In what the back of the HD DVD box calls a "charming and unpredictable comedy!", Vaughn and Aniston are Gary and Brooke. After a meet-cute over a hotdog at the ballpark, the two hit it off and begin what seems like the perfect twentysomething relationship (okay, nice try guys, it's more like thirtysomething). But soon cracks begin to form in the pair's bond, and a series of "comical wrong turns" lead to an all-out war of the exes. Will Gary and Brooke overcome their relationship obstacles and make it to the altar, or kill each other trying?
I have to admit, 'The Break-Up' was genuinely unpredictable. I won't spoil some of the film's third-act developments, but here we may have the first romantic comedy for the new millennium. The marketing for the film may have promised something different, but we are quite far away here from Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan territory. While we expect the typical crude jokes and low-brow sight gags from a Vaughn comedy (this is the guy from 'Old School' and 'Wedding Crashers,' after all), I was quite taken aback by the viciousness on display. Perhaps Gary and Brooke don't whip out machine guns a la 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith,' or resort to residential destruction on the level of 'The War of the Roses,' but 'The Break-Up' seems hell-bent on decimating all of the most long-cherished conventions and cliches of the romantic comedy.
As one character says of relationships today, couples "don't want to connect, they want results." Gary and Brooke in 'The Break-Up' seem to be a victim of this modern course of thinking. And Vaughn and Aniston are well cast in that regard. Two of the most successful and driven stars, both so high-profile that their off-screen coupling during the making of 'The Break-Up' continues to make headlines, the lines between reality and fiction blur surprisingly effectively here. It is not hard to imagine both Vaughn and Aniston have watched personal relationships crumble under the weight of the same expectations Gary and Brooke place upon each other, so even the most over-the-top situations in 'The Break-Up' ring true.
Cultural commentary aside, is 'The Break-Up' actually funny? I thought so -- but then I'm fairly cynical when it comes to relationships. And I can still remember the sour looks on the faces of many a moviegoer that left the theatrical screening I saw, who were expecting another light and sunny Aniston romance. So if you're looking for a witty if far from charming alternative to renting 'When Harry Met Sally' for the 1,248th time, give 'The Break-Up' a try. But if you also buy a box of tissues with the expectation of a typical teary-eyed conclusion, you may end up crying for all the wrong reasons.
'The Break-Up' comes to HD DVD in a 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1 transfer, but the results didn't really wow me. The film has a bright and pleasing visual design -- particularly the pretty Chicago summer locations -- but this presentation suffers from being a bit overcooked.
The most immediately striking characteristic of the image is how bright it is. Behind only Warner's 'Grand Prix,' I have never seen an HD DVD with such intense whites. Unfortunately, this is not entirely a positive. Contrast looked too blown out to me, with blooming obvious throughout. Colors, though natural in tone, appear slightly oversaturated to compensate, which muddies up detail. Fleshtones have a pasty, unreal quality that makes everyone look a bit like a wax figure. The image is fairly sharp, but still lacking the sense of depth of the best HD DVD transfers -- I was rarely impressed by any sense of true three-dimensionality. Only rock solid blacks and a pristine print earn unqualified raves. As such, this is a good but far from reference-quality transfer.
Faring a bit better than the video is this disc's Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track. Universal continues to encode most of their HD DVD soundtracks at a very healthy 1.5 mbps, and 'The Break-Up' is no exception.
Largely dialogue driven, the film actually needed healthy dynamic range, or all the shrill shouting matches between characters could easily have devolved into atonal noise. Despite Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston having quite different timbres to their voices (his very deep, hers rather high), dialogue was always clear and distinct. Music and effects also never get in the way, nor do they stand out. Surround use is fairly minimal, reserved primarily for the sparse songs on the soundtrack and the score. However, there are a few moments of impressive rear discrete effects, such as during a bus tour scene with Vaughn, and the opening prologue at the ballpark. Even if there is little in the way of real atmosphere here, technical specs are totally solid.
'The Break-Up' is another HD DVD/DVD combo package, this time a HD-30/DVD-9 double-sided platter. Thankfully, that means we don't have to flip the disc over just to access all of the bonus features. And there is actually some good stuff on here for once, most notably a couple of star-studded commentaries.
Both Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn pair up for track one, with director Peyton Reed going solo on track two. But don't expect anything in the way of tabloid fodder from the lovebirds. Both are completely professional, forming a mutual admiration society and sticking solely to the making of the film, their off-screen romantic relationship never explored. This is a bit of a shame -- not because I wanted dirt, but because it seems impossible that real-life didn't somehow influence fiction. By the film's halfway point I started to lose interest, especially as Vaughn largely dominates, talking quite extensively about all his buddies that appeared in the movie (including Jon Favreau and co-producer Peter Billingsley, aka "that kid from 'A Christmas Story'"). Reed's commentary is certainly far more insightful, as he covers all the bases of production, and of course also praises Vaughn and Aniston. Perhaps a group commentary with all three might have been a better choice here? Still, it is strangely exciting to hear stars of Vaughn and Aniston's caliber doing an audio commentary together.
Next up are about 30 minutes of making-of featurettes. Though the blandly-titled "Making of 'The Break-Up'" is your typical EPK-fest that plays like an extended commercial, the remaining three featurettes are at least somewhat unique. "Three Brothers: A Tour of Chicago" allows you to use your remote to access a fairly entertaining guided tour of the film's various Chicago locations. Vaughn provides the intro, and he seems like he might actually make a great tour guide someday -- I expect he might do well in Vegas in about twenty years. "Favreau/Vaughn Improv Sessions" is a split-screen session with the actors (and frequent collaborators) trading spontaneous ad-libs and made-up dialogue. Some pretty funny stuff here. Finally, "The Tone Rangers" features the vastly underrated John Michael Higgins as the film's Richard, aka the "Borderline-Gay A Cappella Singing Brother." You might know Higgins from his stints in Christopher Guest's 'Best in Show' and 'Mighty Wind,' and here he creates another character that is both hilarious and human. Get this guy his own sitcom already!
Rounding out the package is a 15-minute collection of Deleted Scenes, Scene Extensions, Outtakes and an Alternate Ending. They're all lumped together with no real explanation of what we're seeing. Nothing truly noteworthy here, especially the Alternate Ending, which goes on a bit too long and is inferior to what made the film's final cut. Still, worth a watch to see how a film can be improved with judicious editing.
Par for the course for Universal, no theatrical trailers are included. The menus are also again standard-issue for the studio, which is a real shame this time out -- flip the disc over, and the DVD side features very cute "His" and "Hers" navigation. So why Universal continues to give us such lame graphics on what is supposed to be a next-gen format is anyone's guess.
'The Break-Up' is far from your standard-issue Hollywood romantic comedy. Despite the presence of America's sweetheart Jennifer Aniston, it is far meaner than you might expect. Yet I found the film quite funny, and it is certainly a nice change of pace for the genre. As for this HD DVD release, it is a mixed bag. I wasn't totally thrilled with the transfer, but the soundtrack suits the movie quite well, and there is a wealth of supplemental content, most notably Universal's much-touted "U-Control" feature. Though I can't give this one an unequivocal rave, I can say it is well worth checking out, both as a movie and as an example of the latest in cutting-edge HD DVD technology.