Jamie Foxx’s new movie begins with a sequence of one of those so-ugly-they’re-cute dogs urinating on its master’s floor. The picture closes with a scene of a guy running alongside a train that’s carrying away the woman he loves; he tries haplessly to scream at her through the window, and…well, you know what happens when he’s not looking where he’s going. These two bookending examples illustrate the fact that despite its title, “Breakin’ All the Rules” does no such thing. In fact, the hip-hop comedy of switching romantic partners is an entirely predictable tale that settles so quickly and snugly into the mold that it seems to be following a screenwriting playbook step by step.
In a way, though, that’s appropriate, because the wisp of a plot is based on the premise of a guy whose fiancee has just dumped him writing a rule book on how to break up with someone most efficiently. That sort of idea has gotten quite a workout in movies of late–just recall “Down With Love” and “10 Ways to Lose a Guy,” both of which might be thought of as elder first cousins to writer-director Daniel Taplitz’s script. And apart from the fact that the main characters are African-American and the action is accompanied by an oppressive hip-hop soundtrack, the movie doesn’t add much to them. Quincy Watson (Foxx) is the fellow whose girlfriend Helen (Bianca Lawson) takes off on the eve of their wedding and, in his depression, sets his thoughts on breaking up to paper and becomes a celebrity by doing so. At the same time his cousin Evan (Morris Chestnut), a “player” type, enlists Quincy to help him with his current squeeze, a physical therapist named Nicky (Gabrielle Union). But–surprise, surprise!–before you know it, Quincy and Helen have (partially through misunderstanding, partly through payback) hit it off. Meanwhile Quincy is also enlisted by his goofy publisher boss Phillip (Peter MacNicol) to assist him in breaking up with his gold-digging girlfriend Rita (Jennifer Esposito). And Rita enlists Evan, whom she mistakes for Quincy, for advice on how to prevent Phillip from dumping her. And Helen returns with reconciliation on her mind.
Clearly confusion and coincidence are the linchpins of Taplitz’s screenplay, which comes across as a sort of buppie updating of the sort of material that Rock Hudson and Doris Day did in “Pillow Talk” nearly half a century before. (The main difference is that the wimpy sidekick character that Tony Randall or Gig Young might have played here is elevated to a co-lead.) It’s very silly, familiar stuff, very much like the many other African-American romantic comedies that have come down the pike over the last several years. The lead quartet have that generic upwardly mobile middle-class feel, and the second-banana white folk are all nutty or worse. (That includes Jill Ritchie, as a hospital buddy of Nicky’s, and Patrick Cranshaw, as her randy old patient.) It’s directed without panache by Taplitz, and has the typically flat, chintzy look of an underfunded studio movie. In fact, the only elements that raise it above the norm are Foxx, whose delivery of the uninspired lines retains his customary deadpan charm, and MacNicol, who has perfected the character of the earnestly inept schlemiel so thoroughly that one begins to suspect it might come naturally to him. On the other hand, all the business with the dog–which, in a terribly unfunny bit, becomes addicted to alcohol–is definitely a minus.
It would have been nice if “Breakin’ All the Rules” had followed its own advice and demonstrated a bit of imagination. As it is, it’s a sadly ordinary bit of fluff, a romantic comedy that aims to be wacky and charming and winds up being neither.