Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Directed by Elaine May
Starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepard, Eddie Albert
Rated PG

"Meet somebody? There's nothing but jerks staying here."

Written by acclaimed playwright Neil Simon and directed by Academy Award nominated actress/screenwriter Elaine May, The Heartbreak Kid is one of the first and best examples of the 'Cringe-com'. Putting unlikeable characters in uncomfortable situations is fairly common at this point: Larry David has made bazillions doing it in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, and Ben Stiller has based his entire career, including a pretty good remake of this very film, on making audiences squirm along with him; but in 1972, this was still groundbreaking stuff, and in Charles Grodin, May found the ultimate anti-hero, a wormy, objectionable narcissist who is pretty much the living, breathing definition of “cringe”. In the Heartbreak Kid, Grodin’s clueless cad Lenny destroys at least two families in his ceaseless search for sexual/romantic gratification, and we cannot peel our eyes away. It’s like a 105 minute-long car-wreck with a few brief romps on the beach.

Uptight New Yorker Lenny (Grodin) has a whirlwind romance with Lila (Jeannie Berlin, director May’s daughter). Unfortunately, she won't have sex with him until they get married, so, what the hell, they get hitched. Lila's mom is Doris Roberts, by the way. That should be a clear sign that things aren't gonna work out, but what's done is done. Anyway, seems like a fun wedding. After it's over, they head to Miami Beach for their honeymoon, and that's when the trouble starts.

On the way, she sings badly. He doesn't like it. She shows him her boobs. He doesn't like that, either. Then they stop at a motel to have sex, and it turns out to be not so good. He doesn't even enjoy their post-coital cuddling. He hates how he she keeps telling him they’ll be together for "40 or 50 years". And it really drives him crazy when she eats a candy bar in bed.

Breakfast the next morning is no better. He doesn't like the way she eats egg salad sandwiches at all. Also, their second session in the sack in no better. But hey, they finally make it to Miami Beach. Everything should be good now, right? Except then he meets a bewitching blond on the beach, and things get complicated. Said blond is Kelly (Cybil Shepard), who toys with Lenny exactly the way a cat torments a mouse.

Once Kelly splits to splash around in the water, Lenny joins his wife for some sunbathing. Lila sits in the sun too long without suntan oil. Lenny tries to warn her but she doesn't listen, so she gets a terrible sunburn. She is, naturally, upset about all this. Lenny is less than sympathetic and screams at her until she cries. And then he leaves her, beet-red and miserable, in the hotel room.

Bored, he goes to the bar to get a drink. He runs into the Kelly again. They flirt a little. Well, she says random stuff, and he laughs like an idiot. At this point, it is clear that Lenny is smitten, although there is nothing remotely captivating or endearing about Kelly. She’s just super-hot, and Lenny happens to be super-shallow.
Once Kelly suggests they meet up at the beach the next morning, Lenny’s mind is made up. He’s gotta dump the wife and chase the blonde. When he gets back to the hotel room, Lila is, not surprisingly, suspicious. Lenny talks his way out of it.

The next morning, Lenny rushes out to meet Kelly, and they splash around in the water together. He tells her he's married, but she doesn't care.Well, she really just doesn't care about him one way or the other, but he just figures she's a free thinker.  They spend the day together. She tells him she’s from Minnesota, and that her dad (Eddie Albert)  is rich. Even after she opens up a little, she still seems vapid and sorta mean, but she's so good looking, Lenny doesn't notice or care.

It turns out that dad doesn't like the riff-raff at this joint, so they're splitting to “The Jockey Club”. Lenny makes a date to meet Kelly there for drinks that night, even though he already made dinner plans with Lila. So he makes up some bullshit about meeting one of his army buddies on the beach, and sneaks off for his illicit tryst. When he gets there,  he tells Kelly he's leaving his wife. Seems rash, but the heart wants what the heart wants, right?

At this point, Lenny’s  supposed to head back to meet Lila, but a bemused Kelly ropes him into staying for dinner with dad and mom (Mrs. Roper, Audra Lindley!) and their friends from Colorado. Dad hates him. They watch some weird unseen show where some guy goes yeah-de-dat-da while Kelly gropes him under the table. He also agrees to go sailing with them on their friend's yacht tomorrow. He comes back late that night and tells Lila he got into a car accident with his war buddy. He also tells her he has to go to court the next day to sign affidavits and whatnots. You can see the first signs of panic on Lila’s face – this scheming wretch is the man she married? – but she does her best to swallow his bullshit.

The next morning, dad tries to get the yacht  moving before Lenny can board, but he's too fast for him. After a day of sailing, he has dinner with Kelly's folks and tells them what's up.It's a five-minute long monologue, and it's one of the most painful scenes ever committed to film. Brilliantly cruel stuff. Naturally, dad is not happy, and tells Lenny he'd rather be hung from a tree than allow this cad to date his daughter.

So, that didn't work out well, but Lenny's  still pretty self-assured about all this. He takes Lila out to dinner so that he can tell her what's been happening. As you might expect, it's not a comfortable situation.Lila thinks he's dying of a disease, so he finally has to scream "I want out of the goddamn marriage!" at her in the middle of their romantic lobster dinner. She cries and pukes. Again, another hilariously sick, soul-crushing scene.

So, clueless creep Lenny gets out of the marriage and heads to Minneapolis where he lives happily ever after with Kelly.

No. That's not what happens. He shows up at Kelly's house and his dad threatens to kill him.  And of course, when she sees him, Kelly could not care less. So, he fucks off back to New York, and they never see each other again.

No, that's not what happens. They end up having sex.  And they both like it. And dad finally warms up to him.

No, that's not what happens, either.

Amazingly enough, before the film ends, Lenny does, in fact, get the girl. But as the open-ended last scene illustrates, some folks are never happy.

Heartbreak Kid is definitely not a perfect film – at 105 minutes, it’s longer than it needs to be, and the ambiguous ending is less-than-satisfying – but there is still much to recommend it. Grodin is amazing in this. Every role he took on after it, from Midnight Run to those stupid dog movies and even his Letterman appearances over the years had echoes of Lenny in them. Grodin is about 76% Lenny in real life now. But what’s so great about his character in Heartbreak Kid is that there’s a tiny bit of Lenny in all of us. Sensibly, we do our best to keep our inner-Lenny under wraps, which is why this film is such fun to watch – Grodin is us, if we completely lost our fuckin’ minds. Also, Cybil Shepard is perfectly cast as Kelly. Beautiful and bewildering, with just a casual fluttering of her eyebrows, she illuminates a very sad truth: men are idiots. That has not changed in the forty  years since this film was released, which is probably why Heartbreak Kid still seems so fresh and funny. Ranked number 91 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 funniest comedies, Heartbreak Kid is a classic slice of 70’s cynicism, alternately hilarious and painful. Prepare to laugh and wince in equal measure.

- Ken McIntyre

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