The most recent and most appropriately titled entry in the misshapen “breakup” subgenre, Breaking Upwards is an obstreperous, half-serious celebration of dysfunction—mostly familial and sexual—stuck somewhere between putative autobiography and indie-inverted, quirk-riddled rom-com. Auteur Daryl Wein directed, edited, and stars in the movie, a supposed “reenactment” of an experiment he and girlfriend Zoe Lister Jones (who plays herself, or some dramatic variation thereof) underwent when their four-year relationship began to sour. It’s fitting, then, that the shortcomings of the film should be aligned so closely with the technique Wein and Jones employed to evade codependency: While executed with charmingly determined amateurism, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been tried by, and that hasn’t failed for, dozens others.
Unlike several similar films of the last few years, Breaking Upwards is a linear exploration of a love affair’s gradual demise—though its protagonists’ dishevelment makes (500) Days of Summer seem downright chronological. Daryl and Zoe are perpetually shifting their attitudes toward one another, their partnership, and the seemingly ubiquitous temptation of greener-grass prospects about them; they can’t even properly stick to an agreement reached early in the film to take three days “off” from each other a week in order to mutually build independence. The desultory emotions make for veracious, if maddening, characters and an indigestible, herky-jerky narrative; there’s nothing to cohere the jumble of juvenile love-themed anecdotes (some bitter, some hopeful) aside from the sense that it will eventually all disintegrate. And possibly without good reason: Essays at peripheral dating seem unfulfilling—Zoe reluctantly but orgasmically hops into bed with an arrogant fellow actor, then confusingly bemoans the experience as shallow—and the two still care enough to bruise when infidelities surface, so why all the pointlessly pomo attempts at escaping what boils down to sexual ennui? In the film’s least engaging scenes, Wein and Jones seem loopily hopped up on hormones, using film as an onanistic device for closure; squabbles between the two are clunkily rendered, suggesting that either their actual relationship was rife with wooden histrionics, or that their pithy expressions of heartache haven’t translated well to the screen.
But what’s most irritating is that Wein’s gifts as a filmmaker are more-than-apparent through his movie’s immature, garden-variety detritus. His mise-en-scène is starkly indolent, but he visually achieves a likeably analog, ‘80s-VHS frostiness that partially excuses his characters’ youthful befuddlement, and the risk he takes by allowing his skinny, chic-nerd self to dramatically helm the picture mostly pays off; he lacks the recognizability of Woody Allen’s harried persona and the impeccably alloyed sweet boy assholism of Zach Braff, but his meek fumbling through awkward filial relationships and one-off seductions epitomizes the other-worldliness of twentysomething (mis)judgment. Scenes with Daryl and Zoe’s extended family members also reveal an authentically tempered ear for Semitic-tinged dialogue, but this doesn’t quite rescue the cast from their mossy tropes: Daryl’s mother (Julie White) isn’t much more than a meddling self-martyr, and Zoe’s mom (an out of place Andrea Martin) recycles the muted laughs of maternal hippiedom with a Jewish accent.
By the wholly contrived Seder-table climax we can’t wait for Daryl and Zoe to call it a day, mostly because we suspect it will halt the endless back and forth of indecisive regret and jaundiced spite. Portraying ugly relationships with any attention to detail can be a losing proposition: When the couple’s trajectory rings painfully true, we relive uncomfortable memories, and when it nosedives toward a semi-clean resolution, we balk. Despite its fleeting moments of genuineness, Breaking Upwards is another rusty nail in the anti-love story coffin, and makes one yet again wonder why filmmakers continually attempt to create art that will last out of relationships that didn’t.