The Breaker Upperers (2019)

Over the last decade, its gradually become clear that Taika Waititi is one of the greatest comedic directors of all time, full stop. From the farcical bloodbath of What We Do in the Shadows to the action-comedy grandeur of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to the deep emotional incisions of Boy, Waititi has established a wide range of hilarious, finely-crafted comedic works in just a few features. He even overcame the Hollywood filmmaking odds to disrupt the MCU with some much-needed personality in series-standout Thor: Ragnarök. What’s much more interesting to me personally than what Waititi can achieve in the Kevin Feige Marvel Machine, however, is what smaller projects he chooses to fund with that massive paycheck. The Breaker Upperers, recently added to US Netflix, is an encouraging implication that Waititi’s still passionate about bringing smaller, personable comedies to the screen in the wake of his newfound success – cashing in his evil Disney Dollars to enact a real-world good.

The most exciting aspect of The Breaker Upperers is that it finds Waititi funding new creative voices with his newfound industry power rather than merely amplifying his own. The film is written, directed by, and starring two comedians from within his New Zealand community: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek, who are obviously less widely known to the outside world. Although they share a certain local sensibility with Waititi’s own creative voice, Sami & van Beek bring a meaner, raunchier, more femme point of view to this debut feature — something I’d be eager to see more of in future follow-ups. They appear onscreen here as best friends & business partners — mercenaries who own a breakup-delivery service. The two women fake affairs, deaths, and pregnancies to help expedite the breakup process for cowards who can’t muster the courage to admit the truth to their partners that it’s time to move on. Eventually, the moral toll of lying for a living catches up with them, but the movie has as much fun with its initial premise as possible before the business of telling an emotionally satisfying story gets in the way.

There’s something distinctly 90’s-specific about The Breaker Upperers’s premise, as if it were a Kiwi-flavored soft-remake of the Norm MacDonald classic Dirty Work. As vintage as its plot may appear, however, the film nimbly avoids feeling stale or uninspired in its presentation. This is partly because it wastes no time establishing a first-act reason or backstory for its breakup-for-hire business the way the Happy Madison equivalent of this premise would. We join the women at work mid-stream, as if this were a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that has already been running for years. The character nuances & the mercenary cruelty of the breakup-for-hire business are immediately well-defined enough for the rapid-fire editing to squeeze in as many goofs, gags, and friendship-dynamic crises as it can in its wonderfully slim 90min runtime. In their most inspired storytelling maneuver, Sami & van Beek establish their characters’ entire backstory as friends & business partners over the course of a single Céline Dion karaoke performance. It’s an efficiency that’s not only refreshing in the post-Apatow era of improv looseness, but also leaves more time for the character quirks & moment-by-moment gags that matter more than the plot anyway.

If you’re at all familiar with the Waititi comedy catalog, you’ll recognize plenty of faces among the film’s cast – including van Beek herself, who was a significant player in Shadows. More importantly, the film expands the New Zealand comedy scene’s presence in the word at large by offering Sami & van Beek their own platform where than can make us laugh on their own terms. This is a raunchy, queer, femme, goofy-as-fuck comedy with a big, earnest heart. It’s nice to know that something that distinct could be made on the back of the Mickey Mouse machine. Once again, Waititi has found a way to stand out as one of our most vital comedic voices, this time by signal-boosting the voices of others with his newfound industry clout.

-Brandon Ledet