My “fix” when I was in a funk about my relationship disasters – namely my divorce from a husband of four years and then my subsequent highly public breakup with a well-known financial convict – was the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
An awkward, bittersweet comedy, it hit all the right notes. The absurd plot, involving a lovesick musician ending up stuck at a Hawaii resort with his famous actress ex-girlfriend and her snaky-hipped rockstar new beau, felt eerily relatable. But the story was still different enough from my life to provide an escape.
It also grappled, in reasonable detail, with the task of “moving on,” which everyone knows is rarely a pretty process. It’s more like plunging through a swamp of self-doubt, ugly crying, rants about “revenge,” and spending way too many days, unshowered, on the couch binge-watching Netflix.
However, a little Netflix wallowing might not be so bad. While not a replacement for therapy or supportive family and friends, the right “breakup” movie is like a perfectly placed acupuncture needle for heartache. Laugher can numb the pain and watching characters overcome personal challenges can help you feel less alone.
Not everyone has the same taste in breakup movies, of course. Although some of us might prefer realism, others would rather distance themselves from ordinary mortal affairs entirely and immerse themselves in fantasy or action thrillers. On a Reddit forum, a popular suggestion was the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for instance.
But if you are the kind of person who wants to get over their breakup by watching a breakup movie, and not elves and hobbits doing battle with orcs, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve scoured the internet (or, well, queried ChatGPT) and picked through the folds of my own brain to arrive at a list of 10 solid bets. Some might make you laugh; some might make you cry, and some both. But at the end, they should leave you feeling a little more “OK.”
Take it from me: If these flicks can help me survive an emotional divorce, a tumultuous romance with a famous felon, and then a highly publicized split which turned me into the internet’s “main character” for a day, they should help lift anyone’s spirits.
1. ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ (2008)
This comedy was written by actor Jason Segel, based on his own painful breakups, and the emotional authenticity shows. Segel plays Peter, a composer recently dumped by his girlfriend of five years, Sarah (played by Kirsten Bell), who happens to be an actress famed for her starring role in a popular CSI-like television show. Trying to get over Sarah, Peter travels to a Hawaii resort – only to find Sarah there with her new boyfriend, an overtly sexual British rock star played by Russell Brand. Misery and hilarity ensue.
2. ‘Legally Blonde’ (2001)
I was a newspaper nerd, not a sorority girl in college. I did not dress in perfect pink outfits, plan “socials,” or spend hours curling my hair or getting my nails done. Despite all that, I found much I could relate to in Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods. Dumped by her boyfriend, she tries to win him back by following him to Harvard Law School. Wrongheaded though her goal might be, her profound tenacity pays off – and she discovers that she is actually a gifted lawyer, overcoming everyone’s stereotype-based underestimation of her abilities, and didn’t need her dumb ex after all.
3. ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman’ (2005)
Imagine marrying your first love, who goes on to become phenomenally successful, and buys a huge mansion for you both to live in. Sounds like “happily ever after” right? Now imagine him unceremoniously kicking you out and filing for divorce after 18 years, bringing in a new woman to take your place, and reminding you that you signed a prenup, meaning you’re not entitled to a dime?
This is the predicament Helen Simmons-McCarter (played by Kimberly Elise) finds herself in. Inspired by a play of the same name, the movie was written by Tyler Perry, and became the debut film in his “Madea” franchise. Madea is Helen’s straight-talking grandmother, who helps her get back on her feet, and also delightfully terrorizes Helen’s ex-husband by wreaking havoc on his house and taking a chainsaw to his designer sofa.
4. ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ (2001)
One of the best things about watching “Bridget Jones’ Diary” is that the movie makes it feel “OK” to be a hot mess, at least for a little while. Played by Renee Zellweger, Bridget is a single woman in her early 30s who lusts after her boss (Hugh Grant), only to discover he was a philanderer. She also embarks on a determined path of self-improvement and a search for “Mr. Right,” as chronicled in her diary. Eventually, she develops feelings for another man (Colin Firth) who tells her he likes her “just as you are.” The British comedy is based on a novel of the same name, which is based loosely on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
5. ‘The Lovebirds’ (2020)
OK, this isn’t exactly a “breakup” movie. However, the main characters, played by Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, are going through a breakup as the plot unfolds. It’s a silly action comedy, revolving around the ex-couple getting accidentally ensnared in a murder plot involving blackmail, politicians, orgies, and a lot of other weird shenanigans. You won’t find a lot of pithy, thought-provoking lines here, but you might laugh at the snappy dialogue and at an absurd moment of physical comedy where Nanjiani gets kicked by a horse.
6. ‘Dreamgirls’ (2006)
Originally a Broadway musical, the movie loosely resembles the story of the rise of 1960s R&B superstars The Supremes. The group of young Black female singers in the story first call themselves “The Dreamettes” and then later “The Dreams.” A Detroit car salesman named Curtis, played by Jamie Foxx, becomes their manager, and begins to date the lead singer, Effie (played by Jennifer Hudson).
Curtis eventually becomes concerned that Effie’s curvy figure and powerful voice are too “Black” to succeed with white audiences and instead makes more conventionally attractive Dream member Deena (played by Beyonce) the lead. He also begins to date Deena, shattering Effie’s heart. Before leaving Curtis and the group, Effie belts out a stunningly anguished ballad: “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going.” Playing this song at full volume and singing along may very well cleanse your soul.
7. ‘The Break-Up’ (2006)
Before “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” came along, the gold standard for comedies about romance gone sour was the aptly named film “The Break-Up.” Starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, the plot details an uncomfortable situation that’s all-too common for people living in expensive cities: having to go through a breakup while still cohabitating with your former partner. Forced to live as roommates until they sell their condo, Aniston’s Brooke and Vaughn’s Gary engage in an arm’s race of provoking and irritating each other and they work through their still-tender feelings. (He hosts a strip poker party; she invites an a capella group to practice in her bedroom.) Eventually, they reach a more amicable understanding.
8. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
The premise of this movie starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet sounds ridiculous, but who wouldn’t want to simply hit a “delete” key for intrusive and painful memories of a past flame if they could? Much of the movie occurs in flashbacks, as Carrey’s character Joel undergoes the memory-erasing procedure in order to get over his ex-girlfriend Clementine, played by Winslet. Watching the disconnected moments of whimsy, warmth, and hurt on screen feels remarkably similar to the experience of going through a real-life breakup and thumbing through pages in your own mind. This might be a lot to take, depending on what stage of a breakup you are in, but the movie does end on a hopeful note.
9. ‘500 Days of Summer’ (2009
Much like “Eternal Sunshine”, “500 Days of Summer” mainly revolves around memories of a failed relationship, and it is a non-linear story. The protagonist, Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is struggling to get over his ex-girlfriend Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel). Over the course of re-examining his memories, he discovers he’s only focusing on the happy moments and discounting warning signs and incompatibilities. When he finally realizes he’s been over-idealizing Summer, he is able to pick himself up out of an emotional slump and move on.
10. ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (2010)
There are reasons why I never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, despite it undoubtedly being a beautifully written book. Her globe-trotting quest for enlightenment – to Italy, India and Bali – sounded like the stuff of the uber-privileged. (Who else could take a year-long mid-career sabbatical just to “find themselves?”) The circumstances of her story were also close enough to my own that they made me feel claustrophobic: She was a successful writer who had fallen out of love with her husband, initiated a difficult divorce, and then was left devastated when an intense rebound affair ended.
But when I finally watched the movie, I was glad I did. The lush scenes of exotic locales were soothing, and the flashbacks of Gilbert’s fights with her ex-husband, which were almost carbon copies of fights I had with my ex-husband, actually made me laugh. There are a few lines, too, which strike a universal chord, such as when a character tells Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts), as she’s overcome with sadness about one of her exes: “So miss him, send him love and light and then drop it.”