Directors: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek
Starring: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Ana Scotney, Rima Te Wiata
There must be something in the water in New Zealand. Over the last decade, this small nation has provided the world with some of the big and small screen’s most inventive and interesting comedic voices. There is a sincerity and a self-effacing quality that belies a true sharpness which has been distinctive in the work comedians like Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords, Rhys Darby (Short Poppies) and, of course, writer director Taika Waititi (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok), which has seen all of them leave their mark. You can now add to that group Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, the writers, directors and stars of The Breaker Upperers.
Best friends Mel (Sami) and Jen (van Beek) run an unorthodox business together. The provide what they call an ‘uncoupling service,’ engaged by clients to intervene and end relationships when they are incapable or unwilling to do so themselves. They are professional breaker upperers. Is it unethical? Maybe. Immoral? Hard to say. For Mel and Jen it’s just best not to think about it. For the business to all work smoothly they have one simple rule: do not get emotionally involved. But, of course, if everyone stuck to the rule then we wouldn’t have a movie.
The premise at the heart of The Breaker Upperers, that there are people who help other people break up with their partners in fantastic and dramatic ways, is very funny. The film introduces us to the concept through a fantastic opening montage of different break up scenes involving Mel and Jen playing everything from doctors and police officers to jilted lovers and pregnant exes. Where other films might have spent the first act giving backstory to how this business came about, this hilarious opening drops us right into things knowing that we will discover what we need to know organically as the story progresses.
However, as brilliant as the premise is, it is not enough to sustain a film on its own. To prevent it from feeling like one long comedy sketch, the breaker uppering serves as the foundation for a film about a friendship. While they have been brought to this venture by the same experience, Mel and Jen are not the same characters, but rather a classic uptight and slacker odd couple. The cynicism required for this undertaking doesn’t come as naturally to more free-spirited Mel as it does to the hardened Jen. So when Mel both falls for young rugby player Jordan (James Rolleston) who comes to them for assistance in breaking up with his girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney), and befriends one of their dumpees, Anna (Celia Pacquola), who she feels sorry for, it causes tension between the two, which in turn brings up some old, unresolved issues which need to be worked through. Amidst all of the breaking up, what we have is effectively a love story between these two friends.
The Breaker Upperers serves as a real calling card movie for the writer-director-star duo of Sami and van Beek. Having both worked in television – most notably on the female-driven sketch comedy series Funny Girls on which Sami was a regular director and van Beek one of the stars – as well as having smaller supporting roles in the likes of Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows, they share great on screen chemistry and really know how to play to their respective strengths. Sharing the spotlight with them is James Rolleston, who has grown up since playing the titular character in Waititi’s Boy, and is delightful as the dimwitted but earnest Jordan. Rima Te Wiata, who won many over as Ricky Baker’s adoring foster mother in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is equally hilarious here, stealing scenes as Jen’s very sexually open mother. There is also a short cameo from Jermaine Clement which consists entirely of him having uninspiring Tinder hookup sex.
At a time when many of the female-driven films that get attention, particularly the comedies, are studio-driven, gender-flipped re-workings of established franchises (not that there is anything wrong with that), this cheeky buddy comedy feels more fresh. While The Breaker Upperers is unlikely to get a wide release, though Taika Waititi lending his name to it as an executive producer will help, it is a genuine crowd-pleaser and is definitely worth tracking down.
Review by Duncan McLean
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