I don't care what the critics say, The Break-Up is a unique and outstanding "romantic" comedy. I used the quotation marks because this is so far-removed from your average rom-com that it doesn't really belong in that category. I've read a few good reviews of this, mostly on AICN, but the stuffier crowd (even Roger Ebert, who isn't stuffy but who shares the stuffy opinion) is pretty universally panning it. But I think the people who dislike it, for the most part, are missing the point.
Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) meet at a baseball game where he sort of bullies her into having a hot dog and then proceeds to corner her on the way out of the stadium to convince her that her date is a loser. Sounds like a jerk, right? Well, no he isn't. He's an aggressive suitor, to be sure, but his ultimate goal is to make her smile, and it works. You get the feeling that if it were any other man doing that to any other woman, he'd get slapped in the face. And if you're paying attention, you can see what's really happening here. Brooke is watching a baseball game she couldn't be less interested in. She has come - as non-sports-loving women occasionally do - to a sporting event in order to spend time with her guy. The problem is that she's not that interested in the guy either. She keeps sneaking sidelong glances at Gary, even before he makes the scene with the hot dog.
Mr. Ebert doesn't like this opening, but I think it perfectly sets up what Brooke likes about Gary and why they're suited to one another. I totally bought it, and I'm sorry for those that didn't. We get a few more quick glances at the Relationship, through candid photos that run through the credits (that's probably my only complaint about the film - I can't stand once the movie has started telling me the story). In these photos, they're happy and decidedly in love. But once the credits are over, it's time to get to what the movie is really about.
The relationship falls apart bit by bit, and the break-up is complicated by the fact that the two of them are co-owners of a condo. Their real estate becomes an interesting symbol of their life together that both of them are loathe to let go of. But there are clearly problems, and you think you know what they are at first. However, this movie is smart in that it doesn't go where you think it's going. Gary and Brooke make some spectacular and classic mistakes, usually preferring to play games and drop hints rather than actually talk about their problems. And they ask the absolutely wrong people for advice, which makes matters worse.
I don't want to spoil any more of it, but it does end very unconventionally, which may disappoint some people. But I think the ending is perfect - somewhat ambiguous, but I think your interpretation of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.
I have to say a word about the writing, because I think the dialogue was atypically (for the genre) great. Lots of rom-com dialogue makes me cringe (or maybe that's the formulaic plot that does it to me). The fights are exquisite. Real, nasty, and over the stupid crap that most couples fight about. And it feels so unwritten. Like the script simply said:
Gary and Brooke FIGHT for 3-4 minutes.
It just seems like the director pointed the camera at Vince and Jennifer and said "Okay, go for it." It's just so well done, and the writers don't give two flips about the Formula. It's almost as if they took a traditional romantic comedy and turned it inside out and stomped on it.
Speaking of Vince and Jennifer, they have an interesting kind of chemistry. I usually don't care for real-life couples playing on-screen couples, because - bizarrely - much of the time their off-screen chemistry doesn't read into the film. I'm not sure how Aniston and Vaughn would play as a traditional rom-com couple, but they were quite good with this particular material. The fighting dynamic was great in itself, but the few tender moments they have feel very real and are surprisingly moving. (Yes, I cried a bit - why do you ask?)
If you're thinking of seeing this but have been scared off by the negative reviews, give it a shot and leave all your preconceptions at the door. Personally, I just really loved this movie and I'm glad that there are people who want to make "romantic" movies that take you to unexpected places. I'm sick of being able to guess how everything ends by looking at a movie's poster. :P