Breaking and Entering opens with a man twirling a hula hoop that could double as one of the side rings in a small-town circus. We learn that this man holds the Guinness world record for largest hula hoop twirled, which requires three full revolutions to rate as an official completion. This man, a fairly conventional looking white American gent probably in his middle 40s, also holds the record for the most records held, which also includes holding the most milk crates vertically stacked (measured by weight, not height), and bowling the highest score backward, managing an impressive 200. As the title suggests, the picture is concerned with a number of functional yet somewhat eccentric people seeking to define themselves by making it into the iconic book by increasingly absurd means. The man who holds the most records isn’t the focus of Breaking and Entering, but he’s the extreme representation of self-actualization on the fringes that haunts the entire film.
For maybe 20 minutes, I was suspicious that Breaking and Entering would trot out a succession of freaks for my detached amusement—a real-life, to borrow the overused but inevitable comparison, Christopher Guest comedy of pain, only potentially without that filmmaker’s empathy. On a simpler level, I also wondered how compelling a 90-minute slide show of various record holders could prove to be. Director Benjamin Fingerhut is aware of these concerns however; he structures Breaking and Entering as a somewhat conventional human-interest nerd-empowerment story in the vein of King of Kong. Fingerhut, after an opening introducing a number of Guinness competitors to establish the obsessively random culture, then settles into a narrative that parallels his most approachable two subjects, both of which are, of course, athletes. For variety and occasional comic relief, Fingerhut also cuts to frequent supporting players, such as the couple who hold the record for most phone books torn in half, or “The Grape Guy,” who finds himself in competition with an elderly man for the title of catching the longest horizontal grape toss in his mouth.
The stars, though, are two middle-class white guys in conflict over their obsessions. One is a Canadian family man who briefly holds the world record for “joggling” (jogging while juggling) only to have a Philadelphian soon usurp him, which leads to a somewhat friendly rollercoaster rivalry. The other is an American in his 50s who organizes a Kiwanis charity drive centered around his efforts to break the record for consecutive hours spinning, which is somewhere in the realm of an agonizing 90 hours. It is clear, early on, that both of these men, and probably most of the record holders, are lost in that way that’s traditional to those who’ve covered their creature concerns and maybe little else: They’ve never found their peg, their niche, something that can define them apart from other white dudes with families and houses and kids and unending bills and office tedium. The film allows these men a strange dignity, as they, and most of the other competitors, are surprisingly, engagingly self-aware of their issues. The joggler has little man’s syndrome; he’s an athlete who needs to push his physical endurance to justify himself. The monkey on the spinner’s back is even more universal, as he’s an outwardly macho competitor forever seeking dad’s approval.
If you’ve ever nursed any significant insecurities of any kind (I’m assuming that’s all of you), then you will find certain scenes in this film to be surprisingly moving. Fingerhut works with taste and tact; he doesn’t punch the subjects in the gut with his camera to wring those tears. But Fingerhut almost sympathizes with his folks too much in that he doesn’t challenge them; he doesn’t elaborate on the obvious tolls these pursuits take on throughout the remainder of these people’s lives. (It’s quite clear that the joggler’s wife is just about over her husband’s hobby, despite her poignant concession to him near the end.) A few clear implications—that these are quests for meaning and immortality, and that these pursuits are symbolic of any hobby with which we desperately wish to make money doing—never quite crystallize. Breaking and Entering is appealing but slight.