Crafted by two of New York’s most celebrated wits—and based on an idea by a lesser light from the same stratosphere—The Heartbreak Kid represents satire so cutting the movie borders on outright tragedy. The film tells the story of a young Jewish guy who marries a simple girl, experiences buyer’s remorse, meets a beautiful shiksa while on his honeymoon, and gets a quickie divorce so he can pursue his Gentile dream girl. To describe the lead character as unsympathetic would be a gross understatement—Lenny Cantrow’s sole redeeming quality is a deranged sort of relentless positivity.
Based on a story by humorist Bruce Jay Friedman and written for the screen by Neil Simon—who mostly avoids his signature one-liners, opting instead for closely observed character-driven comedy—The Heartbreak Kid was directed by Elaine May. After achieving fame as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols in the ’60s, May embarked on an eclectic film career. She wrote, directed, and co-starred in the dark comedy A New Leaf (1971), which was the subject of battles between May and the studio during postproduction, then took on this project as director only. While May’s world-class comic instincts are evident in the timing of jokes and the generally understated tone of the acting, it’s easy to envision another director taking the same material to greater heights of hilarity.
You see, the problem is that The Heartbreak Kid tells such a fundamentally cruel story that it’s hard to really “enjoy” the movie, even when the comedy gets into a groove. Much of the film comprises Lenny (Charles Grodin) abandoning or lying to his wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin), so he can make time with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a bored rich girl who uses her sexual power for amusement. In other words, it’s the tale of a rotten guy dumping a nice girl for a bitch. The piece is redeemed, to some degree, by the skill of the performers, each of whom is perfectly cast. Grodin, a master at deadpan line deliveries, is all too believable as a middle-class schmuck with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Berlin (incidentally, May’s daughter) bravely humiliates herself to make sight gags work, amply earning the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress that she received for this movie. Shepherd, at the time a former model appearing in only her second movie, does most of her work just by showing up and looking unattainably beautiful, but one can see glimmers of the skilled comedienne she eventually became.
The film’s other recipient of Oscar love, Best Supporting Actor nominee Eddie Albert, excels in his role as Kelly’s father, because his showdown scenes with Lenny are among the picture’s best—watching Albert slowly rise from simmering anger to boiling rage is pure pleasure. In fact, there’s so much good stuff in The Heartbreak Kid that it becomes a laudable movie by default, even though the central character is a putz of the first order. Inexplicably, the Farrelly Brothers remade The Heartbreak Kid in 2007 with Ben Stiller in the Grodin role, only to discover the story hadn’t lost its ability to infuriate. The remake flopped.
The Heartbreak Kid: GROOVY