Let’s try this again. Not like anything is ever going to make sense. The truth is that most of my life I’ve known either New York or Los Angeles, not that I have any idea where else I’m supposed to go. My one and only trip to Minnesota was for a wedding where during the reception I found myself gravitating towards one particular side of the family, specifically the other New York Jews who had also traveled to be there. No matter how nice everyone else was, that was where I felt comfortable, that was where I felt I belonged. Of course, we spend so much of life trying to figure out where we belong and if certain people were ever really meant to be part of our lives at all. Sometimes the answers to those questions are more obvious than we want to admit. Maybe this is something we eventually learn, maybe we never learn a damn thing. We’re still going to fuck things up, of course. We are who we are.
Which brings us to THE HEARTBREAK KID, original version. Not “Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID” according to the credits, but we’ll get to that. The cult around the great Elaine May remains strong these days, at least in the world of Film Twitter, and interest surrounding the four films she directed seems to have grown with the reputations of A NEW LEAF
, MIKEY AND NICKY
growing stronger, all of them remarkable in their own ways in spite of the now legendary postproduction issues each went through. So in one sense, her second film THE HEARTBREAK KID feels like an outlier. Whether it’s her best is a pointless debate—ask me on different days, I’ll give you different answers—but the argument could be made that its narrative spine does hold together better than any of them so it all flows together without some of the jagged rhythms contained in those others. The death last year of star Charles Grodin also served as a reminder of the fearlessness in his work here, not only cementing what would become his screen persona for all time but helping to make this a seamless fusion of performance and film.
THE HEARTBREAK KID received two Oscar nominations, always a little surprising for a comedy, but has sadly become difficult to see in recent years due to rights issues too dull to go into here. For now it can be found online in so-so quality at a certain site that starts with a Y and the audience response at a screening a few years ago proved that its edge hadn’t dulled. This is a film that can justifiably be called a comic masterwork but one that is also a profoundly uncomfortable experience, which wouldn’t be the case if there wasn’t any truth in there. People can be horrible, after all. Maybe if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be people. This is a film about the choices we make in what we pursue which can lead to us losing who we are, no matter how much we wanted it. It never feels daunted for a second in how far into the depths it’s willing to go for those laughs and in that sense remains a source of inspiration even if it’s a reminder about the choices that wind up leading us the wrong way.
Newlywed Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) takes off for Miami Beach with his bride Lila (Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon where almost as soon as they arrive he meets blonde beauty Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach, becomes instantly smitten and uses the ideal excuse of Lila’s horrible sunburn to keep her in the hotel room as he gets to know Kelly better. He meets her parents Mr. and Mrs. Corcoran (Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley) and is then determined to end his marriage as soon as possible, even if it means pursuing Kelly all the way back to her home in Minnesota leaving behind everything he knew in life before. '
Closing in on fifty years after it was released at the end of 1972, THE HEARTBREAK KID remains awe-inspiring like few other comedies I can think of, a high-wire act of cruelty and deadpan awkwardness done as light romantic comedy, with humor so deadly that the laughs hurt as they stick in your throat. The tone is unrelenting, going further beyond where you think it will go as it takes this premise and stretches it to see how far this feeling can go, beyond the point where you think it will break off and give you some relief, a moment that will make it all feel better and everyone can laugh. The lead character fearlessly lies and talks his way out of the situations he gets himself into until there’s no one around to call him on it but no matter how cruel the film becomes he always feels completely human in his determination, just horribly so, no matter how much emotional wreckage he causes thanks to his own selfishness. It’s hard not to shake the wish that the film is somehow going to give you a speck of relief but it remains committed to that goal as much as he is, completely unrelenting in that pursuit. Which makes it difficult to watch this film without wanting to flee the room at certain points but this is, of course, meant in the best possible way and its anti-comedy approach tricks you into thinking you know what it is, only to reveal that it’s about more than just the cruelty that it leads to.
The title card at the start specifically reads “Neil Simon’s THE HEARTBREAK KID” and that writer is the one credited with the screenplay based on the Bruce Jay Friedman short story “A Change of Plan”, but the possessory credit stating ‘An Elaine May Film’ follows immediately as if to underline who is really responsible for the approach it takes, not to mention its view of humanity. It certainly doesn’t feel like any other Neil Simon movie from the period, films that vary in quality but all seem like part of the same assembly line with directors who are mostly tasked to keep everything in order as opposed to bringing a real point of view to the material. In his autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” Grodin writes how it was decided during production that the Simon version of a scene would always be shot but May would also film more takes to add whatever embellishments or improvisations she wanted and the film would be put together around that. Simon agreed to this approach, then proceeded to vanish after several days of watching all this begin to take shape. The bones of a Simon narrative can be found in the structure if you squint hard enough but instead of focusing on the expertly timed wisecracks the approach it takes is in looking for the silences found within the reality of how these people might actually react to each other, as if it’s a main character who is looking for that snappy patter only to find everyone reacting to him as if they live in a normal world, in understandable disbelief to what they’re hearing. While some of Simon’s work is about the dichotomy between New York and what’s out there in the rest of the country, specifically California, this film takes aim at the differences between east coast and the white bread middle in the most cutting way possible. The wedding at the start feels strictly working class in how tiny and imperfect it is but this is also the single most joyous part of the film, the cries of ‘Mazeltov!’ coming from those New York Jews which gives the feeling that this is real life, these are their people, this is where the joy is found. When Lenny finds out that Kelly is from Minnesota his disbelieving “It’s so far from New York!” response is one that sounds like he never considered people might live anywhere else, that he comes from a place where ‘the element’ he was a part of is exactly what her father doesn’t like at their hotel which he remains undeterred by. “He hasn’t met you yet, but just from appearances he doesn’t like you,” Kelly tells him later on which almost seems to make him more determined to prove just how far he might be willing to go.
Looking at her other films it becomes clear how much Elaine May loves the men in them through all their horribleness and desperation, but in the case of THE HEARTBREAK KID it feels more like her camera staring unblinking at what Lenny is doing, possibly in awe at what he’s trying to get away with. In fairness, it doesn’t really seem to like anyone else in the film either, except for maybe the extras at the opening wedding; the audience might develop sympathy for Lila, but clearly that’s not the film’s job. What exactly drives Lenny to do this is never explained as if it’s all some indefinable other thing that he’s going for, which never occurred to him until he finds himself out on the road actually interacting and sleeping with his new bride with that brief shot of him sitting across from her as she sleeps, staring, wondering who the hell this is and what he’s done. Through everything she does, her overly aggressive nature on the road, cutesy bed talk and even what she orders in a restaurant, by the time the road trip is done it’s like we’ve gotten a full short film detailing every aspect of their relationship. In fairness, maybe a double order of egg salad isn’t necessary and, sure, she could have listened to Lenny when he suggested she put suntan lotion on but it’s all still kind of endearing even when she’s a little much. Lila only wants him and what they have together, for the next 40 or 50 years as she puts it, already looking forward to when their coffins can sit side by side. Lenny only sees the things he’s suddenly learning about her, as if she’s messing with the perfection he wants to project and sell to people when he looks at himself in the mirror. His pursuit of Kelly the shiksa goddess to end all shiksa goddesses quickly begins to feel like he’s decided to have a staring contest with the entire world, even if it’s just out of spite to prove he can do this as if he’s starring in his very own romantic comedy about what a catch he is, maybe even one written by Neil Simon with a fun title like THE HEARTBREAK KID. All this is like a rationalization as if to search for motivation in the horrible lies he’s telling Lila but marriages in Elaine May films, not that there are many of them, always feel tenuous with the communication wires are always getting crossed as the husband shouts down the wife’s well-meaning intentions, keeping as much from them as possible, trying to avoid the trouble they’re getting into.
Lenny is literally blinded by Kelly on first sight. It’s really the sun behind her that does this, of course, indicative of how he seems to misjudge everything right off the bat even though he remains blinded by her through every enigmatic answer she gives him to his questions, whether actually clever or not. But Lenny dives right in and when he tells Kelly that he’s all in it almost happens before we expect him to, coming up with lies so unbelievable to Lila that she has to accept them as truth in that agonizing silence when he finally gets into bed with her, knowing it will probably be for the last time. “Were you really in an accident, Lenny?” she asks after listening to the story about what happened to him that night, then after all his flailing the horrible silence just hangs there as she looks at him. Instead of keeping this going for an entire movie it simply rips the band aid off through a dinner sequence where he finally breaks the bad news that pushes everything past the boundaries of that agony, Grodin’s pauses become longer and longer, like an improv sketch that he’s been told to stretch out as far as conceivable as if desperately waiting for someone else to talk for him, that certain piece of pecan pie he’s been talking about for so long giving him an excuse to put it off a little longer, groping towards finally giving her the news and when he does still won’t let her get away, telling her all the good that’s going to come out of this and still trying to sell it to her. It’s all made even more brutal by how when it finally gets to the moment of truth the scene is only half over, on one hand unbelievably cruel towards Lila but also forcing us to pay attention to her response while Lenny keeps talking. Any other film with a shred of mercy would likely cut away but any other film wouldn’t pay such close attention to what’s really going on.
This long, horrific, mesmerizing, painfully funny scene is one of the key moments in the film’s structure which can be broken down into several points of negotiation that Lenny must traverse, deadly and heartless but always human, viciously so. Earthy, sexy, funny and agonizing all at once, of course Lila isn’t a bad person. There would hardly be any point in watching the film if she was and the whole point is that she’s not portrayed as a shrew or some sort of nonentity. Her immaturity makes her feel like she’s a little girl in an adult body, needing both her parents help to walk down the aisle at her own wedding, probably never having been away from them for too long. Which makes her helpless up against what Lenny assumes is the cool sophisticated quality that Cybill Shepherd’s Kelly projects, even if she’s just as much of a pampered little girl in her own way. Lila is discarded and has to be, by both the film and Lenny, but it demands we pay attention to her in those giant close-ups when she’s still around, in some ways getting just as annoyed as he is and it is painful but so much of the humor comes out of how much that pain is felt. How much he remains blinded.
Elaine May’s direction is all about focusing on these elements so we feel every excruciating moment, those giant close-ups that make Lenny speechless or when it’s him and another person facing off in the frame, on what Lenny is confronted with and how he’s choosing to handle each moment. It’s not so much about the specifics of composition but director of photography Owen Roizman, at this point somewhere in between shooting THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST for William Friedkin, adds to the intensity by often cramming Charles Grodin into as tight a frame as possible, to force him in there and make us keep watching so we can’t escape from the shot any more than he can. After all, this film is probably about as upsetting as THE EXORCIST in the end. The stylistic extremes displayed by May’s former partner Mike Nichols in directing THE GRADUATE don’t seem to interest her as much but the people do, so in this context it becomes very clear that Jeannie Berlin eating that double egg salad sandwich is Cinema. Even the main theme sung by Bill Dean is more a piece of early 70s easy listening that sticks in your brain whether you like it or not than something by Simon & Garfunkel that seems intrinsically a part of the film, the peppy tone going ideally against the darkness along with those recurring lyrics of “Close to You” running through Lenny’s head. The directorial approach is blunt instead of elegant, a point of view of the world—of both worlds in this film—which forces us to look at it through that prism. It’s an unrelenting sort of pain felt particularly in that one long unbroken shot of Grodin ‘laying out his cards’ has he faces Eddie Albert, with Cybill Shepherd and Audra Lindley in the middle reacting, is as good as anything and so brave in that display of how long it’s willing to wait for the explosion.
The two films can be compared to each other for a variety of reasons and maybe even the weakest stretch of THE GRADUATE when Benjamin follows Elaine up to Berkeley matches up with the weakest stretch here, when Lenny turns up in Minnesota and is forced to suddenly find ways to impress Kelly who at first tells him little more than, “Gee, I’m really flattered,” while on the way to English Lit to win her over (his impersonation of a Justice Department narcotics officer feels half developed and is likely the weakest moment in the film but I’m hardly the first to point out how it looks forward to the Litmus Configuration scene in MIDNIGHT RUN), turning a wisp of an image into someone forced to display some kind of motivation to her behavior, even if this film isn’t about giving us the satisfaction of actual reason which most of the time people in real life don’t do either. The scene where Lenny confronts Kelly in his car feels like they’ve never spoken before and in some ways they haven’t so it makes sense that there’s almost nothing to say about their relationship because there really isn’t one. All he has is the pursuit and when finally alone with Kelly she has him play a game where they stand naked close to each other without touching it’s as if she’s instigating him into a life of no meaningful contact with another human ever again. Even when she talks about how positive Lenny is just like her father, who never seems all that warm and encouraging a person, we never know if she means a word of it and even that ultimately means nothing.
Interestingly, in his book Charles Grodin mentions that he got along great with Jeannie Berlin during filming but didn’t get to know Shepherd at all and, whether intentionally or not, this worked out perfectly for their utter lack of chemistry, two people with absolutely nothing of substance to say to each other. Kelly is every bit the vision that early ‘70s Cybill Shepherd would be but also a blank magazine cover of beauty with little beyond her own private jokes, daring Lenny to keep talking until she loses interest, always looking like she’s about to crack up for her own reasons. The character isn’t even seen during the final seconds of the film, in one sense surprising since it has always seemed like everything was about her, but in truth it never really was and by this point she doesn’t even matter. Eddie Albert as her father barely seems to look at her through the entire movie, certainly not during the great laying out of the cards scene. The showdown over her as a commodity between the two men is the real confrontation things have been building to, this film’s own version of Benjamin Braddock endlessly driving up and down the state of California, and feels like those other Elaine May films about two men sitting across from each other when the real truth comes out. “There’s no deceit in the cauliflower” is an all-timer, spoken during Lenny’s soliloquy about the honesty found in their simple Midwestern dinner, but gets made even funnier by Kelly’s outraged father repeating it back to him in disbelief, outraged he’s being forced to actually sit down and talk to this guy with the ‘New York head’ who he hates so much.
Grodin also wrote about men coming up to him to say how much they identified with his character, looking up to him for snagging the beautiful blonde, which he found unnerving. He’s right, of course, but there are plenty of things to identify with here, just not the sort of things you go up to the star to eagerly share with them. Which is the point, since if there wasn’t anything in there to identify with then it wouldn’t get under our skin the way it does. The final moment sidesteps going for an expected punchline in favor of a quiet realization by the main character, a salesman with nothing left to sell, a life that he’s left behind and can’t return to. The simplicity of the line “I was ten” which isn’t really spoken to anyone as he sits there on that couch at the end faced with what he’s done and what he can’t return to lands in the most brutal way possible which is what the ending has to be. The plasticity of love has been around him though the whole movie, from the songs sung by him and Lila on their road trip to what seems like the welcoming sights on Miami Beach and those are the things that surround us all, until it envelopes you while trying to resist it and suddenly there’s no way to tell the difference. The real thing, to use a line from a certain song, is what you sing with someone you want to be with, until suddenly it becomes something you hum to yourself when you’re alone. It’s an ending that gives this film life, all-encompassing self-loathing life.
A crucial part of all that is how astoundingly good and unrelentingly fearless Charles Grodin is this role, seemingly not caring at all about what an audience was going to think about him. He never winks, he never makes you think that he’s judging this guy, he understands that if he doesn’t keep talking all this might collapse. Coming after smaller parts in ROSEMARY’S BABY and CATCH-22, here he both establishes what the Grodin screen persona will be for all time while also totally obliterating it. Maybe he was better in certain roles later on—as always, we come back to MIDNIGHT RUN—but there’s something pure in this. As Kelly, Cybill Shepherd takes a part which almost seems deliberately underwritten but while we may be paying attention to her beauty, makes it all about both what she’s saying or not saying at the same time, how serious is she ever about anything, really, but as if she’s ready to burst out laughing at any moment, as if daring the people around her to call her bluff on how far she thinks her adorableness will take her. The Oscar-nominated Eddie Albert is astounding, spending part of his screentime doing little more than seething as Grodin attempts to get in his good graces, waiting for that moment where he can lower the boom to this man that he clearly despises, with the always delightful Audra Lindley by his side trying to make things more pleasant. Jeannie Berlin, also Oscar-nominated as well as May’s daughter, is unforgettable as Lila, never looking for our sympathy as if both examining her from the outside and fully inhabiting her from the inside, bringing a cheerful, annoying innocence as she tells Lenny “I put cream on,” with that cream slathered all over her face. She says it with such unthinking hope that you want to take care of her and yet as part of how human, how horribly human, the movie is you can totally understand what Lenny is really thinking at that precise moment.
Movies can remind us of ourselves, our own past and our own fuckups. Sometimes a little too much. They’re a part of our lives, after all, a reminder of all the Kellys and Lilas we’ve known. That doesn’t change. Nothing makes sense anymore, not what we want, not what we’re going to get and, these days, we’re still not sure where we belong. Once when briefly introduced to Jeannie Berlin her at a party, she gave me a look of total disinterest. Maybe I didn’t belong there either. After the wedding that begins THE HEARTBREAK KID, Lila keeps telling Lenny how they’re going to be together for the next 40 to 50 years, almost as long as Grodin himself was around after this movie. Makes you wonder how Lenny spent that time. I mean, what are the things we’re looking for in our lives when we decide we want to be with somebody. What do we really want, deep down? I if we know the answer, can we say it out loud or do we keep going over it in our minds, along with all those reminders of the way we fucked things up. Sometimes that doesn’t change and it likely won’t in the future, no matter how much we learn. Maybe you have to be from New York to understand. Maybe you just have to be able to remember certain things and know when you were wrong. Maybe we never know.
So glad to have another essay, especially about this film. Rediscovered it over lockdown and it has needled me ever since. It was maybe one of the first films I ever saw in a theater and was obviously too young to appreciate or be interrogated by it. Your summation at the end is beautiful. Thank you for this.
Rewatching this now, bombs away!
Thank you very much for saying that, I'm very glad you liked the piece! I will try to return with another one soon.
Another insightful essay from Peter.
I always hoped I would someday work with or at least run into Charles Grodin, who I first encountered at the Woodstock Playhouse when I was there at summer camp in 1961, and saw him playing Biff in Death of a Salesman and Ninnian Edwards in Abe Lincoln in Illinois opposite the local celebrity whose unforgettable name was Robert Hacha.
It was the first time I'd ever seen actors so intense that they literally spit out backlit saliva during confrontations. Never got to meet him tho.
Thank you so much, I'm thrilled that you liked it. Alas, I never got to meet him either. Never saw him on the street, nothing. But to have seen him in a play like Death of a Salesman when he was still developing and he made such an impression on you...that's an amazing memory to have.
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