With The Breakup Girl (originally and, given that this is very much an ensemble piece, somewhat more appropriately titled “Pretty in Green”), writer-director Stacy Sherman seems to be aiming to capture the woozy, chaotic vibe of Jill Soloway’s TV series “Transparent,” which, like The Breakup Girl, seeks to mine laughs and pathos from the travails of a neurotic upper-class L.A. family as they navigate a disruptive episode in the life of the patriarch. In those all too occasional moments when Sherman finds the right note, the film does feel like Transparent at its best, surfing the chaotic wake of three rudderless siblings as they weave in and out of each other’s lives. However, The Breakup Girl more often duplicates Transparent’s least appealing quality, namely its characters’ solipsistic whininess. This, along with Sherman’s inconsistent writing and direction, makes it hard to engage in these characters’ lives.
The titular breakup girl is Claire (Shannon Woodward, “Raising Hope”), who is celebrating her 29th birthday when the movie opens. Naturally, after returning home from her party, her boyfriend (comedian Nick Thune) breaks up with her. Claire has two sisters, bored housewife Sharon (Wendi McLendon-Covey, “Bridesmaids”), who spends her days remodeling her home and fantasizing about her builder, and aimless Kendra (India Menuez, “Something in the Air), who often finds herself outside the spotlight of her older sisters. Their mother, Joan (Mary Kay Place, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”), is a chronic oversharer who frets that her daughters can’t get along. Their father, Bob (Ray Wise, “RoboCop”), is somewhat aloof, but the revelation that he is dying of lung cancer (much like Jeffrey Tambor’s revelation in “Transparent” that he is transitioning genders) throws the family into turmoil but ultimately brings them all closer together.
The cast is generally excellent. The principals all give very different performances but still feel like an actual family. Place is especially excellent as the nattering mother, striking the right balance between annoying, amusing, and affecting. The casting of comedic actors like McLendon-Covey and Thune, as well as Joe Lo Truglio (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), stand-up Natasha Leggero, and Timm Sharp (“Undeclared”) in smaller roles helps maintain a lighter tone even when the material is heavy. (This is yet another quality shared with “Transparent.”)
But a quality cast can only take a movie so far, and The Breakup Girl is so overstuffed with subplots and thematic strands, many of which are simply abandoned midstream, that the film never comes into focus. Sherman’s best idea is that these are unhappy characters who feel no right to be unhappy and thus need personal catastrophes to affirm and express their own unhappiness. “I can’t even have my own tragedy!” Kendra complains at one point.
But this gets buried underneath a lot of self-involved whining and cliched family drama we’ve all seen many times before in much better movies. Sherman exacerbates her screenplay’s lack of focus with an even less coherent visual style. Each scene seems to adopt a new visual strategy, and shots are often mismatched and slightly confusing. For good measure, Sherman even throws in awkward jump cuts, sloppily done interior monologues, and unnecessary animated segments. The Breakup Girl’s desired mix of comedy and pathos is tricky to pull off — doubly so with characters this narcissistic. Unfortunately, while the cast is up to the task, Sherman’s foggy approach leaves their characters seemingly merely petty, small, and simply uninteresting.
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