Friday 3 August 2018

The Breaker Upperers (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Romantic cynics Mel (Madeleine Sami) and Jen (Jackie Van Beek) run an agency called the Breaker Upperers, where they help people break up with their partners without any lingering connections. However, when they agree to help young Jordan (James Rolleston) break up with his girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney), Mel finds herself falling for him. As the two try to deal with Mel breaking one of the fundamental rules of their work, to not get involved with clients, they will also question why they got into this line of work in the first place.

Sami is absolutely brilliant here. Aside from being a consistently warm presence on screen, keeping the potentially worrying concept at the heart of the story from getting too sketchy, and having the kind of chemistry with Van Beek that only comes with outright perfect comedic pairings, this is a depiction of bisexuality that hits all the right notes in terms of fair representation that… well, to be brutally honest, I’m wondering why they all can’t be this good. Van Beek serves as the decided yang to Sami’s yin, as she shoulders a lot of quiet frustration and romantic apathy throughout while preventing the character from falling into flat-out unlikeable. It’s quite an impressive balancing act, and her consistently deadpan sense of humour brings a lot of laughs.

Rolleston manages an equally tricky performance, as his depiction of a naïve and emotionally immature teen reaches the ideal amounts of awkward and even pity at just how innocent this kid is. Celia Pacquola as one of the clients serves as the carrier of the film’s bigger moment of self-reflection for our leads, a task that she pulls off with ease, and I can guarantee that a woman crying is rarely this funny without making one self-conscious. Scotney gets a lot of laughs with her faux-gangsterisms, Jemaine Clement wins major points early on in one of the most intentionally awkward sex scenes I’ve yet seen, and Rima Te Wiata as Jen’s mother is indescribably bizarre in her mannerisms, which in turn consistently brings laughs as we see the beyond-dysfunctional relationship she has with her daughter.

We’re dealing with another New Zealand comedy, one with many connections to the works of Taika Waititi (both Van Beek and Sami have worked on his past films, and Waititi himself is a producer on this one), so that can only mean one thing: Prepare thyself for all the cringe, and I mean that in the best way possible. It bypasses a lot of the easier sources of humour for romantic comedies, sticking more closely to adult enfant terrible in how candid the dialogue gets. Case in point, a scene with Jordan and Mel in the car with Jordan’s mother, where he remarks about how he has been in the vagina of both women in that car. Yeah, it’s that kind of awkward, and it is never not funny. It taps into the purest form of cringe comedy, where the laughter comes out of a need to break an uncomfortable moment of silence in a conversation, and for every moment where it gets invoked, it results in a lot of painfully-effective laughter.

I could easily leave it at “this film is hilarious” and have already given the reason needed to recommend this, but honestly, the sense of humour here isn’t even close to the most impressive thing here. That honour goes to the main concept and how Sami and Van Beek wield it thematically. The idea of someone inventing a scenario just to give a romantic couple a reason to separate, on the surface, sounds like a recipe for disaster… until you realise that this is something that audiences have been seeing on the big screen for literally decades. Creating an artificial and usually-dubious situation just so that two people can break up? Welcome to the thought process behind the third-act break-up, one of the single most egregious film tropes of all time.

If you’ve ever watched a romantic comedy before, you’ve seen this trope in action. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the story, some form of misunderstanding takes place or maybe a secret that one of the romantic leads had been keeping from the other gets revealed, resulting in the main couple separating. This is usually followed by a montage showing the two parties being sad that they aren’t together, followed shortly after by the couple making up just in time for the happy ending.

With the film taking the point-of-view of those who do this in the real world for a living, it ends up deconstructing the kind of person that would deceive and make up tenuous excuses for couples to separate… and to the surprise of no-one, that person is kind of awful. Between Jen as the rather cold and business-minded breaker-upperer, and Mel as the well-meaning but unfortunate enabler, it’s shown as a concept that started out with good intentions but, over time, became something rather toxic. Hell, when this film gets to its own third-act break-up, it feels less like artificial tension and more like a much-needed realisation of ‘actually, this is pretty fucked-up; I want out’. As someone with major hang-ups about this specific trope in cinema, I like that this reads as an indictment on the filmmaking creatives that perpetuate it.

Which is kind of funny-weird because, even with the points made about the kind of person who would be client of this service, it still brings up certain reasons why a service like this would be necessary. We tend not to deal too well with rejection by other people, and when the prospect of needing to break away from an established relationship, most of us would rather do anything else than go through the pain of breaking that connection. As much as we laugh at those who try and break up with people via text message (or, more likely nowadays, social media DMs), there’s a reason why that is as prevalent a scenario as it is.

But at the same time, that form of disconnect can result in a lot of unresolved feelings between parties, to the point where the lack of physical closure can make it feel like the break-up is still going on even years after it took place. The continual emotional pain that comes with that can make the idea of connecting with anyone else afterwards into a self-convinced impossibility. Add to that the age-old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and the possibility that some relationships are so broken that drastic measures like this might even be required, and you have a film that makes a variety of observations about human relationships and sexuality that feel pointed, sincere and, most importantly, accurate.

All in all, this is a very impressive and rib-achingly funny offering. The acting is top-notch, with Madeleine Sami and Jackie Van Beek forming an ideal comedic pairing that I can only hope lives beyond this one production, their direction allows for just the right amount of social cringe to accomplish both comedy and pathos, and their writing makes some amazingly solid points about the practicality of romance while also putting one of the genre’s most prevalent and irritating clichés under the microscope. Pulling off genre deconstruction alongside genre engagement is a difficult trick that only a handful of filmmakers are able to do consistently, and oh my word, do I see a bright future for these two if this initial offering is any indication.

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