Breaking Upwards hard to do for young Jewish lovers

The 20-something, deeply-in-love couple commanding our attention — demanding it, actually — in “Breaking Upwards” could have saved themselves a lot of angst if someone had only reminded them of a couple of apt Jewish aphorisms.

Be careful what you wish for. And its first cousin: The grass is always greener on the other side.

An ersatz romantic comedy that grapples, indulgently and unsatisfyingly, with the lust vs. commitment conundrum that preoccupies so many people of a certain age, “Breaking Upwards” opens Friday, April 16.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote the screenplay, which Wein directed, based on their own messy attempt at expunging the boredom (almost entirely sexual, based on the evidence on view here) from their four-year relationship. Set in an inviting Manhattan where almost no one is over 30 except Zoe and Daryl’s parents, the independent film looks good, sounds great — and wears out its welcome long before the embarrassing revelations of the climactic third-act seder.

Screenwriters Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones also star in “Breaking Upwards.”

“Breaking Upwards” is one of those movies where there’s scarcely a line of dialogue about a subject other than “the relationship.” Even the peripheral characters are bound by this straitjacket, reducing actors such as Andrea Martin (as Zoe’s divorced mother) and Peter Friedman (as Daryl’s dentist father) to caricatures.

Consequently, even if one likes or identifies with Daryl and Zoe, their self-absorption soon becomes claustrophobic and suffocating, to put it bluntly. Since the leads penned the script and play themselves, the movie flirts more than a little with narcissism.

Its plot, such as it is, is set in motion by the bright, self-aware duo negotiating set “off days” each week when they don’t talk on the phone and are free to see other people. As they quickly learn, it’s one thing to have an intellectual conversation about jealousy and responsibility, and quite another to handle the emotions unleashed by temptation and, um, consummation. When one and then the other person are hurt, his or her prideful self-awareness feels like self-delusion.

It’s worth noting that, although almost all of Daryl and Zoe’s liaisons are with non-Jews, they’re presented without editorial comment. That is, they’re not samplings of forbidden fruit or acts of rebellion against the duo’s parents, the tribe or even four years of sex with a Jewish partner. They are simply affairs of opportunity and convenience, which is both more realistic and less compelling.

We can overlook the usual big-screen absurdity that people can live just fine in New York without reliable sources of income — Zoe’s an actress doing off-off-Broadway theater and Daryl’s reduced to moving back to his folks’ roomy brownstone — but it’s harder to swallow the hoary adage that a movie can be propelled for 90 minutes by nothing but the actors’ charms.

Zoe and Daryl pull a bottomless array of wry smiles, endearingly wrinkled noses and coy head tilts, to the point where I felt I might need to see a chiropractor for my face. They’re so gosh-darned cutesy and winsome one yearns for just a whiff of the off-putting astringency of the misanthropic lead character in “Greenberg” (not that you should  construe this as encouragement to see the Ben Stiller picture.)

“Breaking Upwards,” to its credit, displays enough maturity not to settle for a kissy-face ending in Central Park, but not enough depth or sophistication to gratify viewers outside of its target demographic. As a date movie for post-collegiates, it has its appeal. Just don’t wish for too much.

“Breaking Upwards” opens Friday, April 16, at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.