The Breaker Upperers: has a very short half-life
The ghost of Taika Waititi hangs prominently over The Breaker Upperers, a film that happily bears his deadpan comedic chops, but lacks the narrative audacity that made hits like What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople so popular with fans and critics alike.
Director/writer duo Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek star as Mel and Jen, ‘the breaker-upperers’. Disillusioned by heartbreak, the pair run a morally dubious business that ‘hastens the inevitable’ by breaking up relationships for a sizeable fee. Life is going well, but a couple of jobs – one for the emotionally unstable Anna (Celia Pacquola), and the other for the teenage Jordan (James Rolleston) – set the pair on a collision course that results in them questioning their friendship, relationship history, and company.
First things first, this film is funny. Like from the get go, laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s sure to please crowds to no end, and in an early-morning press screening at the BFI, it elicited that rare beast: a round of applause. Unlike Waititi’s films, The Breaker Upperers isn’t afraid to dive into politically incorrect, dirty, or (at least slightly) uncomfortable humour – this all out, unrestrained approach keeps things feeling bouncy and fresh in the joke department. Since the screening, there have been at least four or five moments where I’ve quoted lines from the film to friends.
But, being honest, as the film progresses, I felt it ran into a similar problem as A Simple Favour – a lack of comedic momentum. Whereas that film had its zany, pulp twists to keep audiences on edge, The Breaker Upperers flounders when it runs out of things to say. The narrative never really has a compelling direction, and the ending is in sight well before it actually arrives, so after the initial belly-laugh high of the first 45 minutes, the cinema became noticeable quieter.
If I was to search for another criticism, it’d be that there are diminishing returns for this particular brand of Kiwi sardonism – The Breaker Upperers is not particularly distinguishable from any of Waititi’s own films, and as such its rather forgettable. There are several moments in which Sami/van Beek try to touch sentimental heart strings, but the surreal, constructed, artificial environment that they’ve created through the use of ironic humour means that we can never really take the plight of their characters seriously.
Similarly, performances are hilarious across the board but possess a kind of self-knowing irony that begins to grate. Rolleston, for instance, plays a ‘stupid’ person with such overt ‘stupidness’ that it’s impossible to view Jordan as a real-life character. Similarly, Pacquola plays Anna as a caricature of a stereotype, which may be funny, but completely impossible to empathise with. There are points at which we’re supposed to feel sorry for Anna, or root for Mel in helping her, but she’s such a pantomime character that we never really care about her from the start.
As a container for jokes, The Breaker Uppers does its job and then some, but as a work of narrative filmmaking, it’s too undercooked to make those laughs memorable. It has a very short half-life – ecstatic audiences will tumble, gushing complements from theatres; but five hours later, they’ll have forgotten half the things that went on during the movie. If you’ve ever gotten really drunk, and had the best night ever at a shitty club, then woken up the next morning remembering nothing, you’ll know the feeling.