Friday Editor’s Pick: The Hearbreak Kid (1972)

by on October 28, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 4 at 6:00* & Mon Nov 7 at 3:45 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin on Nov. 4


Elaine May’s name just keeps coming up. She’s got a new Broadway one-act alongside Ethan Coen and Woody Allen, Relatively Speaking, and the rally cry to rescue Ishtar from infamy seems to grow stronger every year.


May recently presented Ishtar at 92Y, and appears next month with a new print of her other cinema maudit, Mikey and Nicky, at MoMA. But let’s not get too caught up in the noble enterprise of rescuing neglected gems – a bona fide hit in its day, The Heartbreak Kid just might be May’s masterpiece, and with stars Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin (May’s daughter) in attendance, do we need to tell you it’s a Can’t Miss?


J. Hoberman proclaims The Heartbreak Kid “the culminating work of Hollywood’s Jewish new wave,” so if you’re planning on hitting up “Hollywood’s Jew Wave” (Nov 3-13), the series he co-programmed with Scott Foundas, this is probably the best place to start.


Chuck Stephens for Film Comment (March/April 2006):

Were there film-historical justice in the world, The Heartbreak Kid (72) would be remembered as something more than a finger-jabbed-a-little-too-sharply-in-the-ribs footnote to The Graduate. An excruciatingly hilarious masterpiece of modern misanthropy, May’s second directorial outing stars Charles Grodin as a newlywed who, not five days into his honeymoon, mercilessly dumps his bride (played, with an Oscar-nominated mixture of hapless pathos and a double order of egg salad, by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin) in order to pursue Cybill Shepherd’s teenage Minnesota WASP princess. An anatomy of internalized rage, curdled misogyny, and bottomless self-deception, May’s second film-as indeed do each of the four films she directed-deserves better. It deserves a fate in which someone like Manny Farber, back when those sorts of evaluations meant something, would have hailed The Heartbreak Kid as nothing less than Taxi Driver in reverse. That way, the suck-hole of oblivion into which May’s all-too-brief filmmaking career seems now largely to have vanished might long since have been fitted with a plug. Even in The Heartbreak Kid, the one film she directed but didn’t take credit for writing, May managed to shift the shape of Neil Simon’s script in a manner so corrosive as to foretell aspects of Schrader and Scorsese’s psycho-cabbie transubstantiation of Bresson’s country priest.



Gavin Smith seconds for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2002):

Biding her time with script-doctoring and occasional acting gigs, Elaine May is one of the unsung geniuses of American comedy. As the abandoned bride, May provocatively casts her own daughter., eliciting a performance of heroic self-abasement from Berlin-perhaps the ultimate portrait of female abjection in American cinema. But the film’s farcical premise, which might have devolved into creepy misogyny in a male directors hands, allows May to carry out a merciless dissection of masculine anxiety and fantasy. One of the most excruciating comedies ever made, it’s up there with any of Fassbinder’s sado-masochistic satires.


Even more from that corner, Kent Jones‘ program notes for the Film Society’s May retro:

This gut-wrenching tale, about an upwardly mobile New York Jewish boy (Charles Grodin) who marries within the faith only to meet the shiksa of his dreams on his Miami honeymoon, is told in the coolest manner imaginable — every perfectly observed interaction plays out so smoothly and quietly that the full impact of the story is that much more devastating when it hits you during the film’s final plaintive moments. Few movies have been better cast. Grodin’s brilliant performance was career defining, and it was with this movie that Cybill Sheperd became the iconic 70s golden girl. And if Walter Matthau’s slow burns in A New Leaf are things of rare beauty, Eddie Albert’s belong in a museum. But The Heartbreak Kid wouldn’t have been possible without May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin, as the haplessly gauche, grating, and pitiful Lila. Few directors would dare to cast their own child in such a role, and few actresses could bring so much life to a character that is, in the end, the embodiment of bad luck.



A.O. Scott in a review of the remake-that-we-shall-try-to-forget, for the New York Times:

If you haven’t seen “The Heartbreak Kid,” Elaine May’s 1972 adaptation of a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman (with a screenplay by Neil Simon), you’re missing a minor classic, a study in Jewish male sexual anxiety that fits comfortably (which is to say nervously and neurotically) alongside “Portnoy’s Complaint” and the early films of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky. If you haven’t seen “The Heartbreak Kid,” Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s new update of that earlier picture, I’m jealous.


Series co-programmer J. Hoberman, for The Village Voice:

The Heartbreak Kid (1972), directed from Neil Simon’s elaboration on a laconic Bruce Jay Friedman story, is the culminating work of Hollywood’s Jewish new wave—as well as a hilarious riposte to The Graduate, the movie that more or less initiated that wave while sending the career of May’s former partner, Mike Nichols, into hyperdrive.


Writing in The Saturday Review, Thomas Meehan called The Heartbreak Kid “a triumph of New York Jewish humor” and wondered if “American film comedy may be entering a new golden age as a result of the rise of the semi-surreal comedy of mishap, pain, insult, and desperation.” The Heartbreak Kid (a masterpiece of social pathology that, in the problematic tradition of Van Sant’s Psycho and Demme’s Manchurian Candidate, the Farrelly brothers are remaking) was a commercial hit.



Pauline Kael in her original New Yorker review:

Nothing is as rare in American movies now as comedy with a director’s style and personality. Gordin’s Lenny turns out to be more complicated, more guileful – and nuttier – than we first suspect. That’s what makes the story more than a skit – that, and Miss May’s direction. May has the rarest kind of comic gift: the ability to create a world seen comically. Her satirist’s malice isn’t cutting; something in the befuddled atmosphere she creates keeps it mild – yet mild in a thoroughly demented way, mild as if impervious to sanity. It may be a trait of some witty women to be apologetic about the cruelty that is inherent in their wit; Miss May, all apologies, has a knack for defusing the pain without killing the joke. The dialogue seems natural and unforced. The humor sneaks up on you, and it’s surprisingly evenhanded and democratic; everybody in this picture is a little cockeyed.


May’s tone often verges on the poignant (and is best when it does), but there are unlikable demons in her characters, and you never know what you’ll discover next. Working almost entirely through the actors, she lets those demons come to the surface in a scene before she moves on. The characters don’t seem to be middle-class survivors (though they are) – they seem to be crazy people in leaking boats, like other people. She supplies a precarious element of innocence that removes them from Neil Simon’s pandering, hard-core humor. The innocence in her comic world is a form of ambivalent affection for the characters. Elaine May humanizes them, and she doesn’t send you home reconciled to their self-love. The Heartbreak Kid is anarchically skeptical about the way in which people bamboozle themselves; it gets at the unexpected perversity in that self-love.



Jonathan Rosenbaum in a great piece about Elaine May, for his blog:

In contrast to Nichols’ casting of a New York Jewish actor (Dustin Hoffman) as a WASPy Los Angeleno, May’s own lead was Charles Grodin, originally approached by Nichols for Hoffman’s part, and whereas both movies end with Christian weddings, May’s begins with an explicitly Jewish one. Even the uses of pop songs as anthems of their heroes’ aspirations have ethnic implications: In contrast to the euphoric Jewish assimilation (and mainstreaming of folk music) of Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate – which May is still cracking jokes about in Ishtar The Heartbreak Kid offers multiple versions of a pop single associated with the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” and each successive version registers as more bitterly ironic. In short, working with a Neil Simon script that she was bound by contract to follow, May still found numerous ways to “write” between the lines, and what emerged was every bit as personal as A New Leaf – perhaps even more so because of all the ethnic inflections.


Both comedies are striking in the way they set up an uneasy audience identification with a self-absorbed hero bent on ditching his unsuspecting newlywed wife, rubbing our noses in everything about her that he finds disgusting and abhorrent while creating a surprising amount of empathy and compassion for her as well. It’s a volatile emotional mixture, and if either movie had been directed by a man, charges of misogyny would have seemed almost obligatory. Furthermore, the fact that May cast herself and her daughter as the victimized spouses only added to the effrontery. (May’s gawky performance in A New Leaf and its calculated power to embarrass recalls the physical comedy of Jerry Lewis, whereas Berlin’s in The Heartbreak Kid was sufficiently touching to win her an Oscar nomination.) Combining a passionate will to power as a writer-director with a ferocious autocritique is perhaps the single thematic preoccupation May shares with both Welles and Lewis, and it marks her as an equally dangerous filmmaker.



Peter Bogdanovich with some personal reminiscences, for his blog at Indiewire:

When I now see Cybill Shepherd and Chuck Grodin playing out their scenes with such an extraordinarily real quality on actual locations in Miami and Minneapolis, I remember happily visiting her in those places. And watching Elaine direct the actors brilliantly. Indeed, this is the only Neil Simon screenplay or play ever shot—-and there have been over twenty—-that’s a real movie, the emphasis being visual rather than verbal. Although the script (based on the fine Bruce J. Friedman short story, “A Change of Plan”) is more than excellent, a great deal of the enduring humor of the picture lies in how Elaine May has observed and interpreted the material through her superb performers.


Seeing The Heartbreak Kid again today, after nearly forty years, I was most impressed by its continued freshness, the oddball honesty and eccentric timing of the way the scenes are shot, paced and played. And Chuck Grodin is uproariously funny—-an absolute genius of a performance that never for one instant seems tricky or facile or predictable. His work—-and Elaine May fought hard to have this virtual unknown in the lead—-gives the picture its extremely vital spine.

Charles Grodin in an interview with The Onion AV Club:

I thought the character in The Heartbreak Kid was a despicable guy, but I play it with full sincerity. My job isn’t to judge it. If it wasn’t for Elaine May, I probably would never have had that movie career.

AVC: Did a lot of Neil Simon’s script make it into the final film?

CG: Well, I’m sure it did. In The Heartbreak Kid, [Elaine May] just let me say basically whatever I wanted to say. On the other hand, that was a script written by Neil Simon, who walked out on it early. During rehearsal, she had Jeannie Berlin, her daughter, and I rehearsing songs we would sing on the car going down on her honeymoon, and I remember Neil Simon saying, “Where does it say they sing?” He wasn’t around very much. So there’s a lot of improvisation in that movie. But what I’m confused about—didn’t they have a conversation before they started, to let Neil Simon know Elaine May’s intentions? I found that odd. How would you do that without saying “We’re not gonna say the words as written”? In theater you always do, and certainly we did in Seems Like Old Times, where I’m tapping Robert Guillaume’s shoulder as he plays the piano, and Neil Simon sends someone over and says, “Ask Chuck to stop tapping on his shoulders.” It was so controlling—I didn’t like that kind of thing.



Ryan Gilbey for The New Statesman:

May’s greatest work, The Heartbreak Kid, is one of the most disturbing and painful films of the 1970s. Oh, and it’s a comedy. It may be scripted by the playwright Neil Simon, usually known for a soft-centred and nostalgic take on Jewish family life, but the prevailing, prickly sensibility is May’s. Her movie is consistent with the kind of downbeat, morally penetrating US cinema that was prevalent in the 1970s, while also offering an early example of the comedy of embarrassment, a genre that has provided such fertile ground in recent television.


But even David Brent from The Office would look away during the scene early in the film that shows Lenny (Charles Grodin), criticising the table manners of his new wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin), just hours into their marriage. Surely Alan Partridge would feel his toes curling when Lenny starts manufacturing increasingly absurd reasons for Lila to stay imprisoned in their Miami hotel room while he goes for drinks with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a Wasp beauty whom he has recently met on the beach. And Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm would have to cover his eyes and moan in agony when Lenny ditches Lila over dinner in a crowded restaurant on the last day of their honeymoon.


The original film is unsparing towards its vain or vulnerable characters, while never allowing them to warp into caricature. As Lila dribbles egg salad down her chin, or the snivelling Lenny tries to ingratiate himself with Kelly’s gruff father (Eddie Albert), the picture doesn’t play things for cheap laughs. On the contrary, these laughs come at a price, with May wringing out the comedy drop by toxic drop, relying on long takes or claustrophobic close-ups to magnify the sense of unease.



Gilbey also quotes director David O. Russell, a huge admirer of the film (also documented here, in relation to his film Flirting With Disaster):

My mother took me to see it at a Sunday matinee in 1972. The emotional brutality and black comedy of this film, and others like it in the early 1970s (Five Easy Pieces, Klute, Carnal Knowledge) interests me greatly, much more than the graphic/ironic violence of the 1980s and 1990s. Grodin plays the consummate male narcissist in all his contradictions: he seems sincere, reasonable, even justified at times, as he pursues his cruel path of desire, and we cannot help rooting for him much of the time, I think, even as we cringe at the results – sort of like how we couldn’t help rooting for Bonnie and Clyde or the gangsters in The Godfather.


Jenny Jediny for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

To have and to hold, to love and to cherish—‘til you realize, it’s a mistake. Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid pits the rise of the disaffected young American male against the sacred institution of marriage, revealing dark truths about both with the sort of humor that induces a wince with nearly every laugh.


The Heartbreak Kid isn’t knocking marriage, but rather the often selfish and old-fashioned reasons that propel people to the altar. Reflecting the 70s zeitgeist, you don’t stick it out with your new husband or wife; marriage is disposable, increasingly easy to annul when you do meet the right person, even if that someone just happens to be staying at the same resort on your honeymoon. May’s film is a precise portrait of a lost Peter Pan, whose bewilderment at adulthood still rings painfully true with the spirit of our own time.



Roger Ebert for The Chicago Sun-Times:

We know as early as the wedding scene — which opens the film — that Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid” was directed with a sure feeling for how comedy can edge over into satire and then tragedy[…] Maybe only Elaine May and the author of the screenplay, Neil Simon, could make such a hurtful situation funny, and still somewhat true. The movie is about how we do violence to each other with our egos — how everybody does, except for the poor nebbishes like Lila. She does violence only to egg salad. The movie has a way of making us laugh while it hurts, because it makes Lenny into such a blunt object of egotism, desire, and upward mobility.


But in a lot of ways the most interesting character in the movie is Kelly (as played by Cybill Shepherd). She’s so inapproachably beautiful that, in a way, all she can do with men is tease and taunt them — they’re too hypnotized to treat her as if she were alive and accessible. She has a couple of husky athletes to carry her books, and a rich daddy who’d do anything for her (he’s actually helpless when she smiles at him). And, inside, she hungers for love more, even, than Lenny.


The movie 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.



Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

The film, adapted by Neil Simon from a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, is full of more recent echoes, especially in the performance of Jeannie Berlin, Miss May’s daughter, who looks, sounds and acts exactly as her mother did as recently as yesterday. It recalls the great performing years of Nichols and May, as does so much of the dialogue, especially when Lenny, dining with Kelly’s parents in their huge, clapboard ice palace in Minnesota, tries to say nice things about the “plain” food. Food in New York, he expains, “is exotic but not honest. There’s nothing dishonest about these potatoes. There’s no deceit in that cauliflower…”


Charles Grodin inevitably recalls Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” but I hope he won’t be faulted for it. It’s a performance of completely controlled enthusiasms and puzzlements. As the object, of his unreasonable passion, Miss Shepherd succeeds in the fairly unusual feat of being lovely, bitchy and funny, all more or less simultaneously, and Eddie Albert in the comparatively small role of her father, is a model of superbly comic, quite understandable outrage.


“The Heartbreak Kid” occasionally goes for laughs without shame (which is what has always bothered me about Simon’s brand of New York comedy), but behind the laughs there is, for a change, a real understanding of character — which is something that I suspect, can be attributed to Miss May. The film is an unequivocal hit.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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