Director: Elaine May
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Producers: Edgar J. Scherick
Starring: Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd, Jeannie Berlin, Eddie Albert
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 106 min
Before we get into reviewing this largely forgotten comedy gem from the early 70s, there are a couple of important things to remember. First of all, do not confuse Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid with Michael Jenkins 1993 film of the same name. Although I have never seen the 1993 film, I do know that it became the basis for the TV series Heartbreak High (1994-1999) and therefore feel that it’s best to quicky disassociate myself with it! Even more importantly though, do not think for a second that I am recommending the Farrelly Brothers’ 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid, which starred Ben Stiller. I like Ben Stiller and even enjoyed some of the Farrelly Brothers films but their horrendous update of The Heartbreak Kid drained all the uniqueness and subtlety out of the original script, added some spectacularly unfunny gross-out sequences and tacked on one of those stupid bloody “Uh-Oh, here we go again!” endings.
Suffice to say, the version of The Heartbreak Kid I want to focus on is completely different from the goofy Farrelly fiasco. It has a lot more in common with character-based television comedy masterpieces of the 90s and 00s such as I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) or The Office (2001-2003). While the Farrelly Brothers resorted to over-the-top sequences involving deviated septums and farcical attempts to illegally cross the US border, director Elaine May and screenwriter Neil Simon keep their story firmly rooted in reality, which makes the excruciating events that unfold even more uncomfortably hilarious because they seem entirely plausible.
The plot of The Heartbreak Kid is very simple: Newly-wed Jewish couple Lenny (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeannie Berlin) set off on their honeymoon to Miami. Almost immediately, however, Lenny begins to notice vulgar character traits he never saw in Lila before. Haunted by the conviction that he has made a terrible mistake, Lenny spots a beautiful, blonde Midwestern coed named Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) cavorting on the beach and becomes obsessed with the idea that he must make her his own. When Lila ends up confined to her hotel room with severe sunburn, Lenny steps up his pursuit of Kelly.
I know what you’re thinking. It sounds dreadful. The plot, on paper, looks like a recipe for a sexist bedroom farce filled with convoluted misunderstandings, slapstick scrapes and people hiding in cupboards. Instead, Neil Simon’s highly unusual screenplay and Elaine May’s astute direction turn this premise into a darkly hilarious character study of a man who doesn’t know what he wants but is determined to get it at any cost. Comparisons with The Graduate, the 1967 film directed by May’s former comedy partner Mike Nichols, abounded at the time The Heartbreak Kid was released and, while this is an accurate reference point, The Heartbreak Kid pushes even further into the unpleasant reality of its unfortunate situation.
If you’ve ever complained that you didn’t like a film because it had no sympathetic characters then The Heartbreak Kid probably isn’t for you. Simon’s script offers us no-one to really root for, instead choosing to set in motion a series of social horrors for our voyeuristic delectation. May’s direction, then, is absolutely crucial in making sure The Heartbreak Kid is at all watchable. She works with her fantastic cast to draw out the human qualities of her selfish, hysterical, shallow and pig-headed characters so that, somehow, we feel for them as they stumble through their complex existences.
Charles Grodin is exquisite as Lenny. A case could be made for Lenny Cantrow being one of cinema’s worst monsters but Grodin portrays him as someone with the potential to be a good man if only he could ever be satisfied. Although his actions are most frequently self-serving, Lenny tries desperately to orchestrate some happiness for himself with as little emotional damage to others as possible. His tool of choice to this end is complete and total honesty. Although he begins by lying to Lila, he tells Kelly that he is married right off the bat and, in a hilarious scene, takes it one step further by “laying his cards on the table” to Kelly’s horrified parents in a monologue that sets out Lenny’s sordid situation in incongruously matter-of-fact terms. Funnier still is Lenny’s attempts to tell Lila that their marriage isn’t working over a slice of pecan pie.
Grodin’s tour de force carries the film but he receives more than able support from the rest of the cast. Cybill Shepherd, in only her second screen role, reveals Kelly’s sweet side gradually, having initially appeared to be nothing more than an icy, spoiled and empty-headed brat. Jeannie Berlin is exceptionally game as Lila, revelling in the opportunity to create a superemely annoying grotesque who nevertheless gains our sympathy. Berlin was nominated for an Oscar, as was Eddie Albert for his scene-stealing turn as Kelly’s WASP father whose hatred of Lenny knows no bounds. Far from another in a long line of over-protective father caricatures, Albert plays Kelly’s father as exactly protective enough, considering he is dealing with Lenny Cantrow. His disbelief that this man has the audacity to keep showing up is a joy to behold.
Although it might initially seem aimless in its plotting, The Heartbreak Kid sticks in the mind as an endlessly quotable series of inspired, original moments. The bedtime Milky Bar, the lobster bisque, the aforementioned dumping over dinner and, perhaps most memorably of all, Lenny’s unbelievably over-the-top compliments about Kelly’s mother’s cooking (“There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in the cauliflower”). To top it all off, Simon’s screenplay ends at exactly the right moment with an ambiguous image that encapsulates the sense of melancholic dissatisfaction that hangs over the whole film.
The Heartbreak Kid is certainly not for everyone. Like Withnail and I (1987) or Harold and Maude (1971), it requires a very specific sense of humour and if you don’t happen to find it funny, you’ll likely be bored, confused and maybe even a little bit angry! However, if you DO find it funny, you’ll absolutely love it and want to revisit it again and again. It’s that sort of film.