[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
It’s possible to see The Heartbreak Kid as a kind of funhouse mirror reflecting the foibles and delusions we all share to some extent. A glance into such a mirror may provoke healthy, rejuvenating laughter or the kind of wearily hip sniggering which passes, in some circles, for wisdom. Elaine May, Neil Simon (screenwriter), and Bruce Jay Friedman (who wrote the original story) have all been guilty in their time of making shallow incisions in the human psyche and calling these forays major surgery. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those who work within the purlieus of the sick joke, the genre of black humor, or the kind of New York–spawned drama that is too often slickly, pseudosophisticatedly dependent upon the diminution of human beings to the level of pathetic, momentarily amusing insects. The Heartbreak Kid is frequently pervaded by a certain nastiness, albeit the well-meaning nastiness of a child methodically taking a butterfly apart to see how it works—or a director pushing her characters to such extremes of behavior that they cease essentially to be human and become one-dimensional butts of cruelly extended jokes.
Though several performances in the film (most notably those of Charles Grodin, Jeannie Berlin, and Eddie Albert) have been almost universally praised, I found them to be tainted by the aforementioned directorial propensity and a certain repetitiousness of content—that is, if a certain number worked once, you can depend on its turning up again. Grodin’s sociopathic sap is most consistently just that, with his wide- and empty-eyed gaze fixed obsessively on his peculiar mutation of the American Dream (embodied by that veteran American dreamgirl, Cybill Shepherd) in some awful parody of Dustin Hoffman’s myopic graduate turned predator. Grodin’s completely self-absorbed and amoral naïveté can occasionally make for some hilarious moments, as when he sits down with his dreamgirl’s increasingly appalled parents to explain, with all the sincerity of a courtly used-car salesman, that he has fallen in love with their wonderful daughter and as soon as the unfortunate matter of his five-day-old marriage is rectified, he will ask for her hand in … yet another marriage.
Jeannie Berlin’s performance is unrelievedly grotesque and utterly lacking in the pathos so much touted on the critical circuit. As the super-klutz who marries the sappy sociopath, she fairly begs to be victimized. Whether hefting her bared bosom into hubby’s face on the freeway, smearing her own face with egg salad or inquiring in New York Jewish shrill “Isn’t it wonderful?” at every stage of their connubial blisses, Berlin errs on the side of caricature and denies the role of Leila any human sympathy at all.
It hardly comes as any real surprise when the sap, honeymooning in Miami, looks up into the sun and is blinded by a shimmering vision of quintessential blond American shiksa. What follows is an embarrassment. The sap pursues the super-cool shiksa while the hapless klutz, now lobster-hued and dripping sunburn panaceas, spends the remainder of her honeymoon in a hotel room, periodically regaled by increasingly less credible explanations as to why hubby isn’t around much anymore. The penultimate unpleasantness occurs in a restaurant where the sap has taken the klutz for dinner and revelations. After skirting the issue via a veritable plethora of Reader’s Digest clichés and platitudes (to which she replies: “I never knew you were so deep, Lenny”), Lenny’s first real stab at clarifying the situation leads his spouse to believe that he is suffering from a terminal illness. When she finally grasps her husband’s message, she gags, and repulsively easy laughs are reaped from her rising nausea (with accompanying sound effects) at odds with her husband’s refusal to notice her predicament, so reluctant is he to relinquish his little theater of cruelty and his captive audience, the shocked, but fascinated restaurant patrons. This scene achieves some of nadir of taste, not to mention humor; one can only watch it with the same pained fascination of its onscreen observers.
The rest of May’s film is rather blatantly reminiscent of her former collaborator Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, as the sap, shut of wife and most of his money, buses to Minnesota in pursuit of his now snow queen who, flanked by hulking campus jocks, offers only a cool “I’m so flattered” for Lenny’s pains. But Lenny’s obsession brooks no obstacles: he cons off her jock admirers with a superb narc impersonation, seduces his vacuous true love (Cybill disrobes in a manner calculated to remind viewers of a remarkably similar scene in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show), and lastly engages her adamantly loathing father in battle. Eddie Albert’s performance consists mainly of a quickly predictable set of reactions: When his daughter’s noisome suitor appears babbling courteous nothings, Albert listens stonily, pauses just long enough for the audience to begin to wonder whether he’s going to give in, and then releases words like bullets from between his teeth, letting Lenny know exactly what exotic torment might, just might, coerce him into allowing the monstrous coupling of his “baby” and that which stands before him. Once, this is hilarious; the third or fourth time, merely stale.
Albert, who at least retains some rough-edged reality, is certainly to be preferred to the slickly mannered Grodin and Berlin, who come on as though fresh from a Nichols and May comedy skit—or a Neil Simon Broadway blockbuster. Not to mention Cybill Shepherd, whose “acting” consists of turning her perfectly groomed head to catch the light just so on her gleamingly lipsticked mouth—like some refugee from Seventeen or a Noxzema commercial. But then, she is the sap’s American dream.
Heartbreak Kid ends on the same pseudoambiguous note as did The Graduate; Lenny, having wedded the golden girl and found his place in the sun, gazes emptily into the camera as though suddenly wondering what exactly he has achieved and what in the world he’s going to do next—precisely the same expression which gradually appears on Dustin Hoffman’s face after he has rescued his true love and they are on their way to …? Elaine May might have meant The Heartbreak Kid to be a wryly humorous, even satirical excursion into some uniquely American territory, the limited dreams and fantasies of a schlemiel and the fulfillment of those half-recognized aspirations. But the final product has gone beyond humor, beyond satire, into the realm of the cheaply grotesque; the pervasive temperature of the film has turned cold and calculating. Elaine May and her collaborators may only be shooting at sitting ducks but, nevertheless, it’s more than a little difficult to enjoy the gore.
THE HEARTBREAK KID
Direction: Elaine May. Screenplay: Neil Simon, after the story “A Change of Plans” by Bruce Jay Friedman. Cinematography: Owen Roizman.
The Players: Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd, Jeannie Berlin, Eddie Albert, Audra Lindley.
Copyright © 1973 by Kathleen Murphy