Posted: 10/31/2000

 

Break Up

(1998)

by Del Harvey



Bridget Fonda turns in a stunning performance in this feminist suspense film.


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I have found very few reviews of this film. I sought them out because I’d caught the last two thirds of it on cable one recent, sleep-deprived night. At first sight it seemed mesmerizing: even a bathroom break did not interrupt my interest in what could possible happen next. After the film ended I went straight to “The Source,” the Internet Movie Database. There I discovered very little, other than the script was written by a woman (Anne Amanda Optowski) and directed by Paul Marcus, a virtual unknown. Okay, I was intrigued enough to call the local video store and rent the thing for 99¢ on Bargain Day. I inserted the tape, pressed ‘Play’, and watched.

There is no denying my expectations of Break Up were high. Some of the let-down can be attributed to the fact that, by missing the first third of the film, I formed an impression of an entirely different story. (There’s a lesson in this for writers, I think.) Still, the film was not as bad as, oh, two thirds of the reviews would lead one to believe. And even though the first viewing was intriguing and enthralling, I could tell the exact five minutes that changed all of that.

Here’s the story. Bridget Fonda is Jimmy Dade, a young woman in love with her husband, a small-town auto mechanic, Frankie, played by Hart Bochner. Frankie is into some kind of illegal scam, and although we’re never given many specifics, it really doesn’t matter. This is a character story. However, we do know the cops are after him. And he screws around with every woman in town, including Jimmy’s sister (Leslie Stefanson—The General’s Daughter). And he likes to get drunk and take his frustrations out on his wife. As the story unfolds we discover Jimmy is deaf. This was caused by one of Frankie?s worse bouts of alcoholism and abusive love-making.

The story that follows is essentially a tale of one woman coming to the realization that she is in a bad situation, then changing that situation the only way she can. The fact that she is deaf does add to her troubles, but it also provides a nice twist. The point of view of Jimmy is used to good effect, combined with some muffled flashbacks and altered visuals to give the impression of life with audio input.

Bridget Fonda gives a stunning performance as a deaf woman who learns independence the hard way. Her talent is obvious in this film, which begs the question, “Why hasn’t this helped her career?” She has been in a few noteworthy films, and a few that have been moderately successful at the box office. My take on this is that it’s similar to the young woman’s experience in this film; as in Jimmy Dade’s life, there just aren’t many good breaks for women in the film business. Often an actor reads a script and sees a fine piece of work. The direction, the production company, the distributor have a say in the making of any film and can change its outcome anywhere along the way. However, it is a testament to Ms. Fonda’s professionalism that she puts so much effort into every opportunity she is given.

Another often overlooked, often typecast actor gives a fine effort in this film. Kiefer Sutherland plays against type as methodical, caring L.A. police detective John Box. There is little over-the-top opportunity for him in this role as the lone cop who believes Mrs. Dade to be innocent. His character, while rarely directly involved with Mrs. Dade, grows to be a symbol of hope for her lost and desperate character.

Hart Bochner proves his abilities as a B-movie actor. His Frankie Dade is deceitful, larcenous, cruel, disgusting, and just plain slimy. There should be an opportunity for his as a villain of the Alan Rickman—type. Penelope Ann Miller is his sleazy girlfriend, equally cruel and deceitful. A constant among negative reviews of this film included a sentiment that Ms. Miller’s appearance in a film is a sign of self-destruction for that property. This is an enormous and horrible burden to put upon any one individual, and it is certainly not true here. Steven Weber, of the Tv shows Wings and Cursed, is Detective Ramsey, the archetypal “bad” cop partner to Sutherland. He is mutton-chopped, lazy, insensitive, and seems to have a history with Mrs. Dade, adding a bit of intrigue.

Those five minutes which veer away from possible success for the film? They follow Mrs. Dade’s discovery that her sister has been murdered and her bank account has been emptied. There is a listless, drifting period which may have been intended to symbolize her total sense of hopelessness and lack of direction. Instead it slows the film and leaves behind some unanswered questions, all of which conspire to dull the audience’s interest.

As a curiosity, as another fine example of feminist film, as a study in the talents of Ms. Fonda and Mr. Sutherland, Break Up is definitely worth seeing. As a simple video rental, I’d recommend forwarding through the first twenty or so minutes. I think you’ll discover this a much more enjoyable experience.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a survivor of Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney Company, and the Directors Guild of America.



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