Breaking Up is Hard to Do, So Let’s Stay Together

'The Break-up' starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer AnnistonFor someone who is supposed to be on the mend, I seem to have had a very active weekend, which is a good thing. I had a lot of fun and can put up with a little discomfort. Went to see “The Breakup” starring Vince Vaughn and some girl….

Movies aren’t quite what they used to be. We make our entertainment for the audience we have, not the audience that used to be or the audience that may come together somewhere in time. I think I understand that principle better now than when Steve Sears, one of the producers for Xena: Warrior Princess, first explained it to me.

I had asked him if he could imagine how a remake of the Xenatelevision show might appear in 20 years. Steve said he could not imagine what the audience would be like, and therefore he had no way to suggest how the show might be written.

People in the 1990s may not have realized they would respond to a show like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess, but we were ready for them. We had been prepared for them by a generation of action movies, television shows, books, comics, and other media. These shows would have failed had they been produced in, say, 1978. The audience simply wasn’t ready for them.

And that probably explains why remakes so rarely succeed. “King Kong” was a pretty good movie, and by all accounts I am aware of Peter Jackson’s version made a handsome profit. But several people have made curious remarks to me about how the movie failed to stir its audience.

In retrospect, I think the movie has failed to generate sufficient “buzz” that people will remember it for years to come. I am sure there are indeed some very dedicated fans who will speak about Peter’s version with passion and fervor. But he did the remake. The story was modified in Peter’s attempt to reach out to today’s audience.

What would have happened if he had simply remade the original movie — following the same script in detail — and simply added more up-to-date special effects? Would the movie have worked?

This is a criticism that is widely directed at George Lucas, who continues to issue new versions of the Star Wars movies, adding scenes, changing scenes, replacing actors, enhancing special effects, clarifying video tones, etc. Some of the newer versions provide additional insight into the story George never fully told. But some of them seem to be little more than cleanup jobs, and many people have begun openly rebelling against the idea of having to pay for yet another copy of the same old movie.

Watching “The Breakup” led me to think about these things because it’s not simply just about a breakup. It’s about a love story that pursues a different path. Today’s audience is ready to explore love gone wrong in a different direction from yesterday’s audience. We will never see Cary Grant the way our parents did because he is not new and vibrant to us. He is not reaching out to our generations. He is a voice from the past.

If someone were to remake one of the great romantic comedies from the past, or one of the great romantic dramas, like “Casablanca”, how could they do it successfully without changing the characters and the story? We can watch the original “Casablanca” (colorized or in black and white) and see what our parents saw. But we won’t feel what they felt because we are not living with the urgency of their war, the urgency of World War II.

“Casablanca” takes liberties with reality (there was no such thing as “letters of transit”, for example) but if someone attempted to tell the story today, they would take many more liberties. We’d be lucky to see the story still set in the 1940s.

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is an inventive attempt to retell a story that was never told before. “Sky Captain” pretends to be one of the old pulp action movies from the 1930s and 1940s era. We have all the hallmarks of those fast-paced adventure stories, but the truth is, everything that is imagined in “Sky Captain” is derived from a 2000s’ generation’s point of view.

Sure, we’ve seen neat floating aircraft carriers in the comic books, and the cheesy robots look like throwbacks to the dramatic covers of science fiction magaizines from the pulp era. But that is just the problem. We draw upon the past for inspiration, but there are subtle modernities in the story (such as the notion of destroying the entire world and starting over fresh).

Would “Sky Captain” have been popular had it been made — and looked exactly the same — 60 years ago? I don’t think so. I don’t think people would have understood it. They would not have grown up on a regular diet of intersteller spaceships, artificial intelligence, genetic breakthroughs, and Kung Fu movies.

Virtually everything in “Sky Captain” can be associated with older traditions even going back to Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, and other earlier authors. But the movie tells its story on a massive scale, with dozens of robotic and flying images. Radiation poisoning, which we understand so much better today, is crucial to one part of the story. “Sky Captain” was made for a modern audience that has to see modern scope and depth.

An earlier audience might have ooohed and aahed over the special effects, but it would have missed several key points in the story. They would not have understood the message.

“The Breakup” is a modern movie in that respect. People have been breaking up in America for generations, but each generation has refined the process and added new veneers of rights and wrongs. We don’t even know if the once-happy couple is married. Their status is not mentioned. They are simply a “couple”.

At what point in today’s relationships do two people become a couple? Can they draw up barriers, set limits, and say to each other, “We’ll go this far together, but no farther”?

If they act with joint purpose, are they not acting in unison? Are they not making a decision together and proceeding as they both wish or as they both are willing, together? Is that sufficient to make them a couple? 15 years ago, people would have debated whether Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Anniston’s characters were married. 30 years ago they would unquestionably have been married, or at least clearly engaged.

About the only indication that they have simply started living together is the fact they hold a dinner party for their families, and it’s clearly the first time the families meet each other. But no one states the obvious: that this couple has not made a commitment to be together. They are simply a “couple”, and the story is about how they stop being a couple.

Have our pairings become so brief, such momentary conveniences, that we can now jump into all the emotional angst and heartbreak that once required years of marriage and the presence of children? How long do we need to be together today before we tear ourselves up when we realize we’re about to part ways?

And if we have come that far in the building and tearing down of relationships since the 1960s, when the sexual revolution supposedly began altering the boundaries of American families and society, where will we be in 20 years? How relevant will “The Break-up” be to the audience of 2026? I don’t think they’ll appreciate the message at all, most likely because they’ll be feeling a wholly different resonance. They’ll be ready for a movie we cannot even begin to imagine today.