MacGuffin Film Review – Breaking Upwards

Breaking Upwards – A Review

We open with a couple making love.  They have been with each other for years, they know each other in and out, and seem to be a perfect fit.  However, during this opening scene, something is wrong.  The passion that had sparked this relationship seems to be missing during what is supposed to be the most passionate of moments.  Instead of a representation of the love they have for one another, it has become an act that these people simply wait to be over.  How can this be?  Where did they go wrong?  How can they fix it?  Can it be fixed?  These are the questions that plague the two main characters of Breaking Upwards (2009).

The film is about a New York couple that is only found in films about New York couples.  Daryl (Daryl Wein) is a writer and occasional babysitter, and Zoe (Zoe Lister Jones) is a working actress.  They are both in their early to mid twenties.  However, they must be the most successful people in their fields, as they are able to go to fashionable clubs, bump elbows with artists at museums, exercise and go to yoga classes at their high end gym, and wear tight-fitting pants that cost an arm and leg.  They ride around on bicycles to coffee shops and read books out in the park.  Needless to say, Daryl and Zoe are the definition of New York hip.

At the beginning of the film we find these two in a relationship that has grown stale.  After four years together, both Daryl and Zoe find that, although they both still love each other, they have grown bored of where they are in their lives.  In fear that they are becoming too codependent on each other, they devise a plan that on the outside seems clean and logical, but in reality is messy and potentially dangerous: they will lay out a plan for their own break up.  Half of the week, they will be together, but for the other half, they will be on their own, not in contact with each other, living their own lives separately.  This way, they will begin to grow apart, and eventually separate.  Both Daryl and Zoe find this to be the most responsible, mature, and safe way for them to break up on mutual terms.

But is it really?  Has there ever been a time in anyone’s relationship where two people have separated on mutual terms where at least one of them never regretted it, or at least not thought “what if”?  For a relationship that has lasted four years, that is a lot of time for a person to invest their emotions, fears, desires, and love to one another.  It’s hard to believe that they would be able to passively separate without feeling some sort of loss.  If they were able to accomplish this smoothly, we would have a film that wouldn’t last more than 10 minutes in length.

Almost immediately, their plan goes awry.  Zoe develops a sexual relationship with one of her fellow actors (Pablo Schreiber).  Daryl begins seeing a woman he met at a Jewish gathering (Olivia Thirlby) and the mother of the child he is babysitting (La Chanze).  Despite the fact that they both planned and anticipated for these encounters to happen, both Zoe and Daryl respond with hurt and jealousy.  Although they try to be the bigger person, even going as far as encouraging themselves to see other people, they cannot help but be emotionally hurt by what takes place.  In a telling scene at a party, Daryl jokingly points out a guy in the crowd for Zoe to hook up with.  However, as she begins to flirt and grow close with this actual person, Daryl immediately becomes jealous.  When Zoe points this out to him, his only response is “I’m re-evaluating.”  Flip the coin to another scene, and we see Zoe becoming jealous as well, as she catches Daryl flirting with a beautiful woman at an art gallery.  These encounters and situations pose as the main question of the film: whether or not these two people will go along with their plan to break up, or if the love they have for another is too strong to let go.

The first thing one will notice is that the cinematography of the film is gorgeous to look at.  Daryl Wein, who directed the film, with cinematographer Alex Bergman, has captured a beautiful version of New York City.  The colors are bright and lush, the buildings cut through the sky with sharp angles, and constantly in the background we see all the hustle and bustle of a city beaming with culture.  The acting by the two leads was very good.  Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones (who both co-wrote the film with Peter Duchan) are a real life couple, and because of that they have the ability to show a level of comfort and intimacy that the story requires them to have.  It isn’t hard to pretend to love someone when the person you’re looking at is actually that person.  During the final moments of the film, as these two look longingly at each other, one can certainly believe that that isn’t acting on the screen, but a real moment between two people who really love one another.

Watching the film though, and seeing the emotional turmoil that these characters go through, I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what they should’ve expected.  How can they be surprised by what happens to them?  If they plan to have “off days” from one another, then of course they’re going to build a life of their own, and eventually start to separate.  During the scenes where they fight because of jealousy, I thought to myself “well, you get what you ask for.”  Another aspect that I felt didn’t quite work was the supporting characters, particularly the mothers of Zoe and Daryl, played by Andrea Martin and Julie White.  Helaine (Martin) is Zoe’s mother, a lady from Brooklyn who clearly speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to state the obvious.  She’s actually an amusing and entertaining character, and I would have liked to have seen more of her, to see her character written out a little further to be truly memorable.  The opposite can be said of Daryl’s mother, Joanie (White).  She is the worst character of the film, a cuss-word filled caricature that apparently will go as far as stalking a person to find out what their story is.  Joanie is an over-the-top character that sticks out like a sore thumb; during the scene at the dinner table, in front of guests, as she spits out uncontrollably the entire back story of the two leads, I couldn’t prevent myself from shaking my head, it’s the most exaggerated scene of the movie.

Breaking Upwards is an interesting first independent film from both Jones and Wein, and had me engaged throughout.  The acting from the leads is solid, the visuals are beautiful to see, and it contains a number of both humorous and touching scenes.  This experiment of a couple to plan their own demise is unique in its set up, but obvious in its execution.  Despite their plans and all their mature facades, the one thing that the characters of Daryl and Zoe didn’t take in to account is that love is not something that can be thought out and restricted, but can only be felt and handled instinctually.  You cannot control your emotions, you feel what you feel and there’s no stopping it, everything else is irrelevant. 

Finale Grade: B-

Check out these, “interesting” music videos made by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones promoting the film:

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