The Heartbreak Kid
The Heartbreak Kid is an astonishingly stinging comedy about a young Jewish man (Charles Grodin) who falls out-of-love with his wife on their honeymoon (she is played by the filmmaker’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin) and becomes infatuated with a WASP princess who he meets on the beach (she is played by Cybill Shepherd, just a year out of The Last Picture Show). By Day 2 – while his new bride is sidelined with sunburn – Lenny has sets his sights on a second wife.
Elaine May doesn’t spare anybody’s blushes here. Lila, Lenny’s new wife, is played very sympathetically by Berlin, but she also comes across as silly, crude, and needy. Kelly, the caprious blonde, is playing out her daddy issues and evidently has a taste for mischief. But as for Lenny… what can one say? No wonder Kelly’s father – Eddie Albert – is horrified. And yet, and yet… somehow May smuggles in empathy and pathos for all of these wretched people, tempering the cruelty and cynicism of the satire.
Comparisons with The Graduate remain inescapable, and suggestive, but the movie more than holds up on its own terms.
A note about the projection format: despite its high critical reputation, The Heartbreak Kid is owned by a private company who are willing to license screenings but who have not shown any interest in exploiting the film’s potential for theatrical exposure. No DCP exists, and the handful of film prints in archives around the world are not loaned out to third parties, so the only way we can show this film is via a digital torrent. The quality of this digital file leaves a lot to be desired, but we believe the chance to enjoy the film in a cinema with an audience outweighs this drawback.
The movie has a way of making us laugh while it hurts… It doesn’t constantly bow to Neil Simon’s script (as most movie versions of his work do). Elaine May is willing to improvise, to indulge (and exploit) quirks in acting style, and to examine social hypocrisy with a kind of compulsive ferocity. It’s a comedy, but there’s more in it than that; it’s a movie about the ways we pursue, possess, and consume each other as sad commodities.
Elaine May is the most underrated director in American cinema. The Heartbreak Kid is the closest she has come to mainstream success, but it stays true to her corrosive, uncompromising vision. While remaining essentially faithful to Neil Simon’s script (with its echoes of the 1967 The Graduate), May manages to slaughter the sentimental, feel-good aura of that writer’s baleful contribution to popular movies. She does so by emphasizing the unpalatable facts of cruelty, humiliation and embarrassment… Few films plunge us so mercilessly into the tawdriness of romantic and sexual dreaming.
Adrian Martin, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
July 18 Only: Introduction from filmmaker Devan Scott
Edgar J. Scherick