"Breakin' All the Rules" is a tart romantic comedy almost lives up to its (unfortunately trite) title by side-stepping the kind of superficial plot contrivances that drive most movies of its ilk.
Predicated on misunderstandings (but not the kind that require morons for main characters) and manipulation (but not the kind that considers a misogynist's apology to be a happy ending), it's a shrewdly elaborate roundelay of convoluted cross-coupling that is kicked off when mens'-mag editor Quincy Watson (Jamie Foxx) is unceremoniously dumped -- at their engagement party -- by his boom-shake-a-licious fashion-model fiancée (Bianca Lawson).
As a man who recently quit his job because he'd been saddled with the task of figuring out the most psychologically analgesic way of firing people (his boss is paranoid about workplace shootings), the devastated Quincy sits down to write his ex a letter chewing her out for her tactless way of kicking him to the curb. But when his heartbroken dispatch grows and mutates into a best-selling how-to tome for stage-managing a break-up, all his commitment-phobic pals are soon seeking his advice.
His best friend Evan (Morris Chestnut) and his former boss (uptight oddball Peter MacNicol from "Ally McBeal") both recruit Quincy to help them shake loose the women in their lives. However, through surprisingly crafty cases of mistaken identity and manipulation (the women have boned up on the "Breakup Handbook" themselves), Quincy becomes unknowingly smitten with Evan's girlfriend (gorgeous, comedically game Gabrielle Union), while Evan ends up in bed with a resourcefully seductive gold-digger (amusingly sexy-sly Jennifer Esposito) determined to marry the boss. Soon everyone around him is using Quincy's techniques to jockey for the de-coupling upper hand in a self-perpetuating circle of anti-romantic pandemonium.
Writer-director Daniel Taplitz gets some unexpectedly original laughs out of laying out Quincy's break-up rules, but otherwise uses this set-up mostly as a backdrop for the creative chaos to ensue, driven by a talented cast blessed with quick-witted characters. Even Foxx, who often sets his talent aside in favor of simplistic sitcom clowning (see "Bait," "Held Up"), shows the kind of three-dimensional depth he usually reserves for more dramatic movies ("Ali," "Any Given Sunday") -- while still being downright hilarious.
And just when it looks like all the sexual heat, regret-fueled resentment, jealousy and confused romantic rekindling might settle down, Taplitz paints Quincy's ex back into the picture to potentially unravel all the tentative, newly reshuffled relationships.
Breaking free of hackneyed genre trappings by not using the advice book as a narrative crutch, "Breakin' All the Rules" (which was originally called "The Breakup Handbook" before obtuse studio heads left their fingerprints on it) relies instead its intelligent, and sometimes even insightful, sense of humor. Even when it does fall back on a cliché (Foxx races to the train station to stop Union from leaving town, gets stuck in traffic and abandons his car to run the rest of the way), Taplitz keeps fresh laughs coming from unexpected places.
Over 10 years of reviewing I've grown adverse to most romantic comedies (a genre the softie in me really wants to enjoy) because they're so often reliant on characters who lack the common sense to see through their paper-thin plots (see any recent movie starring Kate Hudson or Reese Witherspoon). When a movie like "Breakin' All the Rules" comes along, it restores my faith.
Run time: 85 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th May 2004
Box Office USA: $11.8M
Distributed by: Screen Gems
Production compaines: Screen Gems, Breakup Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 31%
Fresh: 27 Rotten: 59
IMDB: 5.5 / 10
Director: Daniel Taplitz