The brain doesn’t distinguish between physical and emotional pain; therefore, according to research done at the University, getting dumped has the same effect on the brain as getting burned by a hot cup of coffee. I conducted my own research on the topic of heartbreak through a relationship and recent breakup. Continuing this investigation with a movie marathon, I examined the myths and truths perpetuated by breakup movies.
The better movies are centered on the harsh truths of breakups. The difficulty of moving on is a theme that circumvents decades and eras. In the 1977 classic “Annie Hall,” Alvy (Woody Allen, “To Rome with Love”) and Annie (Diane Keaton, “The Big Wedding”) end a neurotic relationship only to get back together when she calls him over to her apartment to kill a spider. Ignoring their problems, they give it another shot. A few decades later, similar backsliding occurs in “Jesse and Celeste Forever,” when the titular couple, played by Andy Samberg (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation”), think that their “best friends” status can outlast their failed marriage. They struggle in the awkward limbo between romance and friendship and demonstrate the complexities of letting a relationship run its course to the bitter end. Watching these characters try to move on, only to revert to old patterns of comfort, is disturbingly relatable.
Another realistic commonality of break up movies is the depiction of the need to fall apart before fully moving on. For every clichéd scenario of a girl eating junk food in bed and sobbing for days, there are the much more realistic and sadder situations like the one of “Lola Versus,” in which Lola (Greta Gerwig, “Greenberg”) is dumped by her fiancée weeks before their wedding. Lola is flawed and will do anything to recover from her agony. The signature single and zany friend (Zoe Lister-Jones, “Friends with Better Lives”) tries to comfort her to by articulating that “Being single builds character.” Refusing this advice, Lola acts selfishly and sometimes self-destructively — dating random guys, binge eating and revisiting old memories. These actions demonstrate that the only way to get past the darkness is to push through it.
But there are other ways films tackle breakups. “The First Wives Club” is the need for revenge. As fun as it is to watch hilarious women become empowered through the destruction of their philandering husbands, I found it unrealistic. After a breakup, there are plenty of bruised feelings to go around, and that can lead to bold declarations of wanting to tell everyone an ex has herpes or writing a newspaper article inspired by the relationship without telling them about it. But excluding the cases of relationships that have been abusive, neither party feels enough motivation to actually hurt the other, either emotionally or physically. In many relationships, the love that was there doesn’t just evaporate and reappear as ruthless animosity, but rather disintegrates into ambivalence.
Where I find the lines between fiction and reality to be the most visible is in the process of moving on. In almost every movie I watched, the person who had been dumped felt the need to have someone else to take the place of their last partner. In movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Peter (Jason Segal, “Sex Tape”) is only able to find happiness after finding Rachel (Mila Kunis, “Third Person”), with whom he eventually falls in love. I fundamentally disagree with this part of the movie. Our worth is not made up of the people who love us, and a break up is the perfect opportunity to learn who we are without the security blanket of a partner.
When Alvy and Annie break up in “Annie Hall,” he tells her, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
That dead shark will burn you as badly as a cup of coffee. But burns will heal and people will move on, hopefully without wasting their entire Thanksgiving weekend watching other people break up onscreen.