The Heartbreak Kid (1972, dir. Elaine May)
Starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shephard, Jeannie Berlin, Eddie Albert
If you have only seen the 2008 remake of this film, then you are missing out. Where the Ben Stiller-driven version works to make you actively dislike his bride and everything is wrapped up in a nice neat package, Elaine May’s film makes Lenny a completely narcissistic prick. The result is a very dark, clever comedy that ends on a note of ambiguity. Unlike most comedies, this will remain in your head for a long time, thinking about what the result of this character’s choices will be. This is also the best performance from Charles Grodin I have ever seen, turning his smarmy asshole persona up to high.
Lenny (Grodin) meets and quickly ends up engaged and married to Lila (Berlin). As they head south for a honeymoon in Miami, Lenny grows quickly repulsed by her. Upon arriving, he meets young WASP Kelly (Shephard) and quickly falls for her. He begins coming up with absurd excuses to leave the hotel room as Lila treats a nasty sunburn. Lenny eventually decides he’s going to divorce Lila and follow Kelly back to Minnesota where they will start a life together. There’s just the matter of her father, who happens to hate Lenny.
In the remake Ben Stiller’s Lenny is a lovable schlub who has crazy best friends who help him out. In that film you’re made to want him to leave his horrible wife and be with the sunny, charming new girl. Here we get a much more realistic story, any one that would do this to their wife on their honeymoon is a pretty cruel, selfish person. There’s an implication that Lenny only ends up married to Lila because she won’t have sex before marriage, and after their wedding night, he begins actively looking for reasons to hate her. Grodin plays Lenny as a sociopath, a man who constantly lies to worm his way in and out of situations. He manages to balance his performance by making Lenny a likable guy too, the audience is meant to be conflicted. The same can be said about both female leads, too. Lila is a sweet, loving woman but also kind of obnoxious. Kelly is incredibly beautiful, but also very fickle and cold.
I haven’t seen too many Neil Simon films (he scripted this one), but I got the feeling this is not his typical type of writing. Director May has brought her comedy chops to the table, coming out of Second City and her comedy partnership with Mike Nichols. The humor here is nuanced and dry, and its perfect for this story. There’s no slapstick set pieces, just characters engaged in conversation that has the tempo of perfectly normal speech, but when we pay attention to what they are saying, we see just how screwed up they (particularly Lenny) are. Interestingly enough, this picture makes a great companion piece to Nichols’ own The Graduate, both about the ennui experienced by immature men.