Thirty years after Annie Hall, it may seem like there’s nothing left to say about smart, neurotic young people, dressed in funny clothes, falling in and out of love in New York. Then again, neither Woody Allen nor Diane Keaton was particularly young when Annie Hall was made. And more importantly Breaking Upwards, a new romantic comedy about two New Yorkers talking it out, is saying something. The film, which was written by and stars real-life couple Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, has already earned a few comparisons to Mr. Allen’s most likeable film. But it also feels as fresh and welcome as the first weeks of spring in Manhattan.
Breaking Upwards is the story of Zoe and Daryl, and their unraveling. Zoe, an actress, and Daryl, a recent college graduate, babysitter and hopeful writer, are both bored with, and dependent upon, one another. Skipping the histrionics, they approach their own break-up after four years like a group project. They divide up custody of New York; Daryl wants all city parks, but is talked down to Washington Square between the hours of two and four. They address the all-important Facebook status question. And they agree that cold turkey is impossible (while nursing iced coffees and walking down a sunlit street somewhere near Washington Square). Instead, they talk out a schedule of “on” days and “off” days–for part of the week they will be broken up, but on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Tuesdays (“because I wanna watch the Idol with you”) they will go happily back to what they used to be. Except it never works that way, does it? And in the very capable hands of Wein and Lister-Jones, plus two veteran stage actresses, some family friends, and a talented cinematographer discovered “at the mailbox place,” the small losses feel important. Because this is a small movie. It was made for small potatoes–$15,000–and the story goes that its stars were also its caterers. It’s told through small conversations, mainly between people who already love each other. Even New York looks small, cut down as it is to a few apartments and some beautifully shot, endlessly photogenic streets in Greenwich Village. Reducing New York to a neighborhood makes it knowable, and the same can be said about this movie. The only thing at stake here is two peoples’ happiness, but because it’s a good movie, you start to know, and care, about that happiness a lot.
Luckily, there’s a whole other, real-life story to care about. Daryl Wein started writing Breaking Upwards with Peter Duchan about his relationship with Zoe Lister-Jones, and the way it ended. At the New York premiere of the film at IFC last Thursday, Lister-Jones said that her first reaction to the project was “Hell no. I want nothing to do with that.” But she came onboard as a co-writer about a year later–around the same time that she and Daryl got back together. And so, unlike Annie Hall for example, the story is ultimately told from both sides, with “the girlfriend” character written by the girlfriend herself. According to both Wein and Lister-Jones, the whole process has only strengthened their bond, even if it does open up their personal lives to the public eye (“someone asked me if the people onscreen [with us] were the real people we slept with”]. For the record, the two are now in a closed relationship. And their film is the ultimate in collaborative efforts. Daryl directed and brought in director of photography Alex Bergman; Zoe recruited Julie White (who is wonderful as Daryl’s mother) because they shared a dressing room as co-stars in “The Little Dog Laughed” ( “…We’d listen to real empowering pop songs before we went on, a lot of Britney, a lot of Madonna, a lot of Janet Jackson… a lot of girl power in our dressing room,” said White). Above all else, they star together, and the film would not be what it is without Zoe Lister-Jones’ face. The biggest moments in a small film come from watching her laugh and cry.
NOW at IFC Center in New York City
April 9th at Laemmle Sunset Five in Los Angeles
April 16th at Lumeire in San Francisco