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Case Number 02723

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Breaking Up

Warner Bros. // 1997 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // March 20th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

When the sex is great. When the passion is intense. When the love is strong. It's time for…breaking up.

Opening Statement

Breaking Up is a pretentious film experiment gone wrong. The movie doesn't escape the fetters of its theatrical heritage. The two leads talk, and talk, then talk some more. They break up, but we never grasp why. The lack of backstory or context leaves us scant information to interpret. If talk is cheap, Breaking Up is the equivalent of a 99 cent steak dinner. It looks like a meal, but it is hard to digest and leaves you unsatisfied. It is obvious that director Robert Greenwald has poured hidden meaning into every frame. The meaning is so hidden that he is the primary beneficiary.

Facts of the Case

Monica (Salma Hayek) is a feisty schoolteacher. Steve (Russell Crowe) is an Australian photographer who takes pictures of vegetables. The film opens (in clear "homage" to When Harry Met sally) with them sitting on a stage discussing their break up.

Flashbacks show the two in a continuous cycle of fighting, making up, having sex, fighting, and breaking up. The fights are unilaterally petty and abstract. In the middle of an extended separation, Steve asks Monica to marry him. That is where the real "fun" begins. Watch these two bicker against a cloistered backdrop of apartment interiors and sidewalks. Listen to the stupefying philosophical ramblings. Most of all, watch them break up over and over again.

The Evidence

Breaking Up's shortcomings stem from lack of insight. We are dumped into the middle of a failed relationship but the details are never filled in. The list of unanswered questions is long, so let's start with the "Five W's":

• Who are Steve and Monica?
• What brought them together?
• When did it happen?
• Where are they? Chicago, New York, Vancouver?
• Why did they fall in love?
• How can we be expected to connect with these two when none of the above questions are answered?

Since it is clear that their relationship is not the focus, let's turn to their breakups. Most of the scenes begin with them sitting in some room or another basking in each other's company. Randomly, one or the other gets a pinched expression. Before we know it they are screaming at each other. If you hold out to the end of this movie expecting to discover why, let me spare you 90 minutes—there is no discernable reason. Not sure about you, but I can't buy into two characters I don't know who continually break up on imperceptible whims.

Small doses of momentum inevitably screech to a halt. The dialogue does not help the cause. The two don't interact; they wait patiently for their turn to speak monologues. His are about the frailty of love, hers are about the Theory of Relativity and Freud proving that we don't understand the space-time continuum or the depths of our own psyche. These abstractions of feeling come off as 7th grade rationalizations for being dumped.

Another log in the fire is failure to exploit the advantages of the film medium. The movie is blocked like a stage play. The shots are medium or close-up shots. The sets are constrained. We never escape the confines of their bickering nor their environment. No doubt that was intentional, but contrast can be good.

Forays into artistic expression frustrate rather than illuminate. The color scheme is red for her, blue for him. He drinks from a blue cup, she from a red one. He wears a blue shirt, she a red one. The walls of his apartment are cool, hers are warm. Colors are so obviously employed, it was like watching a Sesame Street episode brought to you by the colors RED and BLUE. Can you smack me a little harder with the symbolism, please? You missed a cheek. Other "huh?" moments resulted from inexplicably frozen shots (I thought my DVD player had locked up), sudden shifts to black and white (undoubtedly meaningful in some way), and confusing trips down Surreal Street (Monica being bench pressed by a muscle-bound Adonis while throngs of cooing women look on). Taken as a whole, these cinematic tricks say "Look, Ma, I'm artsy!" In this case, contrast is bad.

This film is rated R for the occasional F-bomb. It would have worked better as a PG-13 film. The subject matter is mature, but the depiction is not. I admire Salma for not taking her clothes off at the camera's whim. However, the love/shower scenes seemed awkwardly composed as they studiously avoided nudity. She reportedly used a body double in Desperado. [Editor's Note: Huh?] That would have been appropriate here.

The image is saturated with bold colors, but isn't cleaned up. For a five year old film, this transfer has a high number of scratches and other defects.

The deleted scenes are just like the movie but worse. The dialogue is even more aimless, the image quality is bad, and the acting is not up to par.

Breaking Up failed the watch test within ten minutes. If I'd been in the back seat, I would have driven Robert Greenwald crazy asking "Are we there yet?" Perhaps this film was an experiment in time-space, because it was the longest hour and a half in recent memory. To add insult to injury, we are given a heavy dose of pain and angst with no redemption or reason.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

It is a testament to the quality of the actors that they were able to wring rudimentary sympathy out of this stupefying script. I give the edge to Salma Hayek. Russell Crowe had some moments, but his hyperactive fidgeting and unexpected head movements gave a measure of inauthenticity to the portrayal. I saw flashes of his Oscar-caliber potential but never got a sense of who Steve was supposed to be. Salma stole many of the scenes, but even her indomitable energy sagged under the weight of words.

Breaking Up has one of the more ambitious low-budget Pro Logic mixes I've heard. Music, dialogue, and effects are bounced around the mains and surrounds so there is some play. Many lines were indistinct, although that could be due to Russell and Salma speaking naturally and quickly. The soundtrack seemed muddy at times but overall the sound was respectable.

The commentary track by Robert Greenwald is fantastic. He articulates the nuances of the film and its construction in lucid and engaging terms. He lets his personality show, and tells what he did or tried to do. Forthright about his failures and proud of his successes, Robert comes across as genuine and thoughtful. Many of his comments reinforce problems I had with Breaking Up, such as the shower scene, the schizophrenic camera techniques, and the confusing dream sequences. On the other hand, many of his comments reveal greater depth and care than I perceived in the movie. Now I can see what he was trying to accomplish. I still think it fell short due to budget and time, but I'm less inclined to think badly of Breaking Up.

Closing Statement

If you enjoy stories of people talking about being with each other instead of actually being together, this film might be for you. I understand from the ladies that Russell Crowe looks good in Breaking Up. That is the only reason I can see to rent this film. It feels the most like a cathartic cleansing of the writer's past, with nuances we are not privy to.

The Verdict

Salma and Russell are free to go with the court's apologies. The filmmakers are reprimanded for such a bleak and unrealistic portrayal of love. If we had been given some shred of rhyme or reason to cling to, it might have worked. I hereby sentence you to dysfunctional co-dependency and repeated tears.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 72
Audio: 84
Extras: 95
Acting: 82
Story: 30
Judgment: 56

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent
• Romance

Distinguishing Marks

• Feature Length Commentary by Director Robert Greenwald
• Deleted Scenes
• Behind the Scenes
• Cast/Crew Notes
• Trailer


• IMDb

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