The Breaker Upperers – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 10 May, 2018

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With The Breaker Upperers, a multitalented duo deliver a side-splitting anti-romcom.

For a movie about splitting folks up, The Breaker Upperers does a lot of bringing people together. Occasionally, it does so in scenes that, when filmed, were possibly embarrassing for all concerned: Jemaine Clement and Jackie van Beek enjoying, some, ah, business time; Madeleine Sami and James Rolleston in a less awkward but similarly intimate exchange.

Clement’s contribution is a cameo, Rolleston is the film’s male lead and one T Waititi is an executive producer. But TBU is all about the combined talents and senses of humour of Sami and van Beek, who wrote, directed and star as the relationship interventionists of the title.

What they’ve done out of the long shadow of Waititi and co is make a female-powered, grown-up anti-romcom. It may feel familiar in its multicultural Auckland setting but it’s quite like nothing we’ve seen on the local big screen before.

It shows traces of the pair’s pasts in small-screen sketch-based comedy and seems to give bit parts to almost all of their past colleagues. But it’s definitely a movie-sized farce that is brash, scrappy, energised, frequently knuckle-gnawingly awkward and occasionally deeply weird while managing to be an offbeat celebration of female friendship.

Mel (Sami) and Jen (van Beek) are partners in an enterprise specialising in breaking up couples – one half of a relationship hires them to tell the other half it’s over. That can involve fibs about accidental deaths, last-minute wedding interruptions and singing-telegram kiss-offs.

Their nasty business is the product of their own unhappy love lives: two-timed by the same guy, they were bonded by shared cynicism.

But it’s another guy who poses a risk to the partnership. When young rugby star Jordan (Rolleston in goofy form) hires the pair to get the message through to his girlfriend after his text emojis fail to spell it out, he takes a shine to Mel. Mel takes a shine right back. Jen feels betrayed.

In between, the women must also cope with Anna (Aussie comedian Celia Pacquola), who has not taken the fake news that her boyfriend has drowned at all well. Having posed as a cop to tell her, Mel extends her act to victim support.

Soon, lies are unravelled. Hen parties are crashed. Celine Dion songs are karaoke-ed – complete with a soft-focus video starring Mel and Jen which, in its own way, is right up there with Waterloo in Muriel’s Wedding.

As an added bonus, the film has Rima Te Wiata as Jen’s permanently inappropriate mum in yet another performance that shows she is long overdue a medal for her services to portrayals of Kiwi motherhood. Her sozzled socialite Shona makes The Real Housewives of Auckland look like the maiden aunts of Timaru.

The movie’s biggest sparks, though, are generated between Sami’s easy-going, mischievous Mel and van Beek’s Jen, a character with a brittle edge who risks becoming positively unhinged, as in a restaurant scene opposite her unfaithful ex (Cohen Holloway).

It all leads to an ending that, despite involving a musical finale, is just a little too tidy for the inspired silliness that preceded it. But it’s an original, inventive, hilarious film, one that sure leaves you wanting more from the Sami-van Beek double act.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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