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Vaughn and Aniston bicker endlessly, and uninterestingly, in the bland `Break-Up'

Consumer-fraud alert: You know the Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn film the trailers are selling as a vengeful romantic farce a la ``The War of the Roses"? Turns out it's the feel-bad movie of the year. Some films mix comedy and drama to arrive at a higher plane. ``The Break-Up" looks at the two and is paralyzed with indecision.

It does start with a nice little kick: a pre-title sequence in which charming loudmouth Gary Grobowski (Vaughn) woos the poised Brooke Meyers (Aniston) at a Chicago Cubs game. No matter that Brooke's sitting five seats over with her boyfriend and Gary's with his crass best friend, Johnny (Jon Favreau); the two connect, and the credits unfold over candid snapshots of their subsequent long-term relationship. These photos are playful and banal; they could be your own life moments pinned up there on the screen.

Which turns out to be the problem. ``The Break-Up" proper begins a few years later, as Brooke and Gary are preparing a dinner for their families in their upscale condo. A misunderstanding over lemons turns into a tiff, which escalates into a fight, and suddenly long-nursed grievances are being aired. She does all the planning and never gets any thanks for it; he can't unwind after a long day without being nagged about picking up. He doesn't want to go to the ballet; she doesn't want a pool table in the living room.

The biggest unresolved question here is why we're paying $9.50, plus popcorn, for something we can presumably get at home for free.

Well, because it might be funny or insightful, or some combination of both. ``The Break-Up" mostly just lies there, though, alternately adoring and condemning its characters for their puppyish refusal to grow up. The couple's rift goes nuclear, with each party trying to break the other down via calculated outrages (fake boyfriends, stripper parties) and pulling their friends into the widening vortex.

Because the script insists these two really belong together, though, it never dares get interestingly mean. See ``The Puffy Chair," also opening today, for a more uncomfortably honest take on such matters.

Vaughn, who co-produced and co-wrote the original story, trades amusingly on the motormouth routine he used to steal ``Wedding Crashers" from Owen Wilson; it's cheering, as well, to see a movie hero unafraid to be a pushy, overweight schlub. ``The Break-Up" asks him to evolve into a sensitive male, though, and if he's not buying it, why should we?

As for Aniston, she's as likable as ever, but her dramatic range has never looked narrower, and if there's any heat to her real-life relationship with Vaughn, it evaporated before it reached the camera. Can Aniston play anything but Rachel 2.0? Does she even want to? That trapped look in Brooke's eye isn't a character in a bind; it's an actress in a rut.

The director is Peyton Reed (``Bring It On," ``Down With Love"), a stylist who seems entirely flummoxed by his material here. He tries to liven up this downer of a party with a broad, bizarre supporting cast: the raspy-voiced Joey Lauren Adams as Brooke's married friend; Peter Billingsley -- Ralphie from ``A Christmas Story" all grown up -- as her husband; Judy Davis mangling a Chicaga accent as Brooke's airy gallery-owner boss. Only two stand out from the throng: John Michael Higgins as the heroine's brother, a very enthusiastic a cappella singer, and Vincent D'Onofrio as Dennis, Gary's big brother and business partner.

D'Onofrio's responsible for the one moment in which ``The Break-Up" flickers briefly to life: a scene in which Dennis hectors Gary about their tour-guide company and, in the process, appears to be having a nervous breakdown that involves sticking his handkerchief in his ears. It doesn't make a lick of sense but it's a marvel to behold. Even that can't compensate for the film's waste of Ann-Margret in one wan scene as Brooke's mother.

The truth is that couples do drive each other crazy; it says so right there in the small print. Sometimes they grow closer as a result, and sometimes they fall apart, for good reasons and stupid ones. ``The Break-Up" raises the subject only to dither about the particulars, terrified the audience will be alienated.

It's too late, though: Out of the muddle comes an anti-date movie of the first order, and a generic one to boot. If they sold bickering at JC Penney, it'd sound almost exactly like this.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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