A wise and well-acted indie rom-com that’s almost mummified inside a mess of overly familiar sitcom tropes, Jeff Rosenberg’s “We Broke Up” eventually gets around to some pressing questions about the all-or-nothing framework of monogamous relationships — questions that it’s mighty refreshing to see asked in such good faith — but after 70 minutes of contrived plotting and broad caricature, there isn’t much time left for the movie to provide any meaningful answers for itself.
The good news is that most everybody who gives this thing a shot will probably sit through the feather-light first two acts and stick around for the payoff at the end, as the “we” of Rosenberg’s film are played by two actors with a rare and proven talent for mining literary depth from characters that exist between Nissan commercials. That shared gift sparks a chemistry that makes us want Lori (“You’re the Worst” star Aya Cash) and Doug (“The Good Place” breakout William Jackson Harper) to get married from the very first shot, but the low-key movie that falls around these languishing thirtysomethings is at its best when pushing back against that Pavlovian response — when challenging our natural assumptions about what happily ever after has to look like.
And word to the wise: Maybe don’t mention the m-word around Lori in public. Doug learns that lesson the hard way during a dryly amusing prologue in which he spontaneously proposes to his long-time girlfriend while they’re waiting to pick up a takeout order in the back of a Chinese restaurant, an offer that causes Lori to projectile vomit all over the floor (okay, maybe it’s a wetly amusing prologue). The next thing we know their relationship is over and they’re in for a mighty awkward weekend together up at Lori’s sister’s wedding, where Doug’s attendance is expected as a veritable member of the family and “king of the ushers.”
Our newly minted exes decide to put on a brave face and keep the fracture to themselves so as not to steal focus from the bride and groom, and while such deception would be pretty easy to pull off in real life — there’s only so much performative affection that people expect from a couple that’s been together for 10 years, even in a loaded environment where every bit of small talk might become a leading question — in a movie it leads to all manner of lightly comic mishegoss.
It starts when Lori’s sister Bea (a winsomely tipsy Sarah Bolger) demands that Lori and Doug start kissing as soon as they show up to the Malibu summer camp where the wedding is being held, and continues with a hotel room snafu that neither makes sense as a plot point nor builds to an eventual punchline (you’re almost 40, just share a bed for two nights, it’s not a big deal!). A few minutes later, Lori wrestles with whether or not to lock the bathroom when she takes a shower, one of several cartoonish touches that “We Broke Up” plays all too straight as Rosenberg and Laura Jacqmin’s script does seemingly everything in its power to prevent its circumstances from evolving into flesh-and-blood characters.
That tendency becomes even more pronounced during a second act that plays like a dead end riff on the “Sunday Funday” episode of “You’re the Worst,” as Lori and Doug act as the referees for the elaborate gauntlet of drinking games they’ve devised for the rest of the wedding party. It feels like the movie is punting all of its stakes on the second down in a bid to stockpile some good-time vibes before things sour later on, but if Rosenberg and Jacqmin draw too much from their time in the sitcom world (he assistant-directed much of “The Good Place,” while she’s written for “Grace & Frankie” and other worthy shows), at least they’re in expert control of that skillset.
It’s a testament to the film’s ultra-watchable energy that these scenes don’t stop the movie dead in its tracks, and it helps that Rosenberg’s supporting cast is as strong as his leads. That’s especially true of “The Righteous Gemstones” actor Tony Cavalero as Bea’s surfer dude groom-to-be Jayson, and Peri Gilpin as the sardonically pragmatic mother of the bride who’s gonna need a few drinks before she watches her scrunchie-entrepreneur daughter marry some divorced guy she met at an airport a few months ago.
Meanwhile, the stand-off between Lori and Doug escalates until both of them are confronted with opportunities to sleep in other beds with other people, at which point “We Broke Up” finally — finally! — gets around to the matter of why. Par for the course in a movie that’s short on time and filled with major life decisions, everything changes in a split-second and a far more thoughtful and compelling love story (of sorts) erupts from underneath the crinkly façade that Rosenberg has papered around it.
This is, not coincidentally, when Cash and Harper both appear to flip out of auto-pilot and revel in the subtle character work they’ve been doing all the while, as Lori’s “I didn’t want to fuck up a good thing by getting married” way of thinking collides head-first with Doug’s “people are just playing house if they don’t put a ring on it” philosophy. It would be much easier to become emotionally involved in the back-and-forth of it all if we had a clearer sense of the couple’s history and the various ways this conflict must have squeaked out to the surface over the decade before the movie begins, but Cash and Harper invest their characters with such heartsick reason and raw belief that you can almost trace a body chalk outline of where their relationship first died.
The home stretch of “We Broke Up” is so knowing that the forced smile of the movie’s first hour achieves a certain poignancy in hindsight. A relationship isn’t necessarily a waste of time just because it doesn’t lead to the altar, Rosenberg affectingly reminds us, just as a movie isn’t necessarily a waste of time just because it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere else.
A Vertical Entertainment release, “We Broke Up” is now playing in theaters. It will be available to rent on VOD beginning Friday, April 23.