Sunday, October 7, 2007
Truth, Discomfort and Comedy
I haven’t seen the original THE HEARTBREAK KID for a long time but chunks of it have always stuck with me, especially that pitch-black tone that is taken to such an extreme you can easily imagine a young Larry David sitting in a theater in 1972 and thinking, “Ah ha! That’s what I want to do!” The problem with a remake isn’t that it’s a remake—although that doesn’t help—the problem is trying to decide how far you want to take the concept. I’ve often said that episodes of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM work best for me when all I want to do is flee the room and not have to endure what is going to happen next. The few times when the show has gone a little too broad, while it may be funny, never works as well for me. So if you’re going to remake THE HEARTBREAK KID you have to be willing to go for that level of discomfort because if you’re just going to make a goofy romantic comedy, similar to other Ben Stiller movies that we’ve seen already, you’re going to make a movie that betrays its own premise and has no reason for being.
To spell out the bare bones of the plot in both versions: A guy (Charles Grodin then/Ben Stiller now) marries a girl (Jeannie Berlin then/Malin Ackerman now) but as they go on their honeymoon almost immediately he begins to have second thoughts about the marriage which are only compounded by meeting a beautiful girl (Cybil Shepherd then/Michelle Monaghan now) who is staying at the same resort.
Now, the Farrelly Brothers have always seemed like likable guys. I remember liking Peter’s novel THE COMEDY WRITER very much and parts of KINGPIN are truly hysterical. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY works best for me, and I know that I sound a little like a lemming when I say that but it always seemed like it was a perfect storm of their comedy, style, tone, concerns and everything that they had to offer. Elements of it seemed to come from a personal place, you bought into the characters and the comedy just flat-out works. Their output since then has gotten more and more problematic, only underlining that these crummy movies can blare “From the guys who gave you THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY!” in the ads only so many time before it begins to lose all meaning. There’s a degree of sweetness in their films—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But trying to cram that sweetness into a remake like this just indicates an elemental lack of understanding of what made the original work.
If you haven’t seen the original (and you should) let me stress that Charles Grodin plays an immense jerk in that film, willing to destroy lives around him based on this vision of Cybill Shepherd that has appeared before him. My memory is that Jeannie Berlin’s character wasn’t the dream girl of all time, but they went well together (there’s a heavy Jewish undercurrent in that film as well, discarded in the remake) in a way that he never could with Shepherd and her family. In their review of the remake the LA Times used phrases like “grim”, “incredibly depressing” and “mean-spirited” as they trashed the film. Of course, these things were being said in the negative but it actually got me more interested because these were elements that were already part of the original movie.
But the remake switches everything around, making the wife turn out to be a sudden nightmare. This not only alters the point of the original, it makes you wonder if certain people flat out missed the point of the original. It also defies all logic that Stiller wouldn’t have learned a few of these things about her during their courtship, even if it was a fast one as it is here. Now, I know it’s a comedy and you should suspend some disbelief, but there also needs to be a certain amount of truth and believability in that comedy, otherwise what’s the point? If there’s no sign of genuine human behavior in this film, then there’s no chance for comic discomfort, so ultimately there’s no true comedy. And that about does it. Of course, reviews have also complained about Stiller’s character being unlikable but the difference is that Charles Grodin never stared out into the ocean wondering what to do as we rooted for him to make the right choice. In its way, the original is about as jet black as DR. STRANGELOVE but you’d never end DR. STRANGELOVE with Sterling Hayden saying, “Just kidding!” I mean, would you? Would the Farrelly Brothers?
But the biggest problem is that ultimately, THE HEARTBREAK KID 2007 just isn’t very funny. Stiller has of course played this sort of role before so what he does here is nothing new, just as the characters played by Rob Corrdry(the best friend) and Jerry Stiller(the father) feel overly-familiar. The film also feels like it’s missing an extra character, one who could kick the film into an extra gear at some point. Maybe the characters who are actually there just don’t seem very funny to begin with. Maybe what’s missing is a middle of the movie setpiece, the sort of scene that everyone is going to leave the theater and tell their friends about, like the hairgel in MARY. A few things seem deliberately designed to be ‘outlandish’ but none of them really work—mostly, the movie seems to think that they’re much funnier than they are. And if we’re going to talk about the emotional content which the movie seems so intent on emphasizing, that doesn’t work either. Michelle Monaghan is the sort of spitfire who looks like anyone could fall for easily—just go watch KISS KISS BANG BANG again to find that out—but all Ben Stiller really does is hang out with her and drink Tequila shots. It’s not enough for the story to work. Even if Malin Ackerman is a nightmare, and it’s unclear what we’re supposed to think about the movie’s treatment of her, to believe that Monaghan is the dream girl we need to get more of her than we do.
Sure, there are a few funny things throughout. Malin Ackerman was very good on THE COMEBACK and definitely knows how to attack this role with the energy that's needed. She'll emerge from this unscathed. The final scene does work pretty well in context and there’s a terrific payoff to an earlier bit that comes after the credits, so be sure to stick around if you go. But ultimately this feels like the work of talented individuals who have forgotten how to correctly assemble a romantic comedy with humor that definitely needs to bite. It’s a shame.