The Heartbreak Kid (1972): Elaine May’s Graduate

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I was aware that this was an Elaine May film and for a brief moment I saw Jeannie Berlin and mistakenly believed our director was making an appearance. Berlin is, of course, May’s daughter, and she’s the spitting image of her mother. The same look. The same lilt in her voice. The same comic timing.

In a sense, we have this weird frame of reference now. I’m not saying Lila (Jeannie Berlin) is a stand-in for her mother per se, but we nevertheless have a curious dynamic to cull through. If we didn’t know any better, we would say this is a typical Hollywood film told from the male perspective.

Charles Grodin is an attractive young man and a newlywed who has just married a nice Jewish girl. They’re headed out on their honeymoon in Virginia Beach. What happens next is not the honeymoon phase at all. It’s the sinking feeling he’s made a mistake. Can he really spend the next 40 or 50 years of his life with this woman?

At first, they’re having a grand ol’ time singing “Close to You” on the freeway, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the inro to The Mary Tyler Moore Show or closer yet The Crocker Bank commercial that spawned another Carpenters’ hit. Here we are headed for new beginnings — a life together — and it’s only just begun.

However, normal rhythms must be interrupted. It starts when Lila starts getting too lovey-dovey in the car. Then, she’s eating Milky Ways after they sleep together or she’s taking eons getting ready to go down to the pool deck. You get the sense her husband is just getting to know her for the first time. It’s really disconcerting if the moments weren’t equally hilarious

He’s already hustled and harried. For the most part, Grodin must push through the picture in deadpan because the film is much more a tempered affair (with a few piercing outbursts).  He responds to his romantic counterparts impeccably, first the unacknowledged goofiness of Lila and the cool flirtation of blonde, collegiate siren, Kelly (Cybil Shepherd). There’s both a rhythm to his diction and a gigglyness that overcomes him — like a little schoolboy — completely selling his double life and the comedic situation.

It’s paritally the fact the scenario gets so outrageous. Because from her first toying with him on the beach, Kelly won’t stop ribbing him to death. First, it’s her “spot” on the beach then it’s her “seat” at the bar, and she’s got him playing along. He doesn’t mind getting trifled with. In fact, he instantly goes fawning over her, despite being very truly married.

Of course, that sets up the blackness of this comedy given the situation. There’s not any kind of spouse murdering or anything grotesque, just infidelity… And I say this facetiously because obviously a situation like The Heartbreak Kid played real and straight would be devastating. In real life, such scenarios don’t come with laughs.

However, Elaine May observes it beautifully and while Neil Simon’s script is mostly spot-on, it feels not so much uncharacteristic of his work as it does a creative departure. The collaboration is as much May’s as it is his, and she puts her unmistakable imprint on the material.

Soon Lenny is already planning his second life and, he hasn’t even gotten finished with his first, married to his current wife a whopping 5 days. His arguments and excuses in keeping Lila bedridden and out of the know are so fluid and self-assured it’s astounding. It’s easy enough to do with Lila.

Still, Kelly’s father (a supremely obstinate Eddie Albert) is another matter, a domineering paternal figure who’s made his position on Lenny’s pursuit of his daughter quite clear. He vehemently opposes any such actions with every fiber of his being. Over his dead body as it were.

Lenny, however, is all in. He makes the trek out to Minnesota, of all places, where the Corcoran’s reside and where Kelly currently attends university. When they get a moment alone together, he pleads with her, “Don’t play games with my life.” It’s pitiful really. A comedy such as this must continually tread the lines of tragedy as much as humor. He’s certainly a real shmuck.

They each treat their romantic partners horribly and yet by the end, it’s easy to find the story weirdly sincere. Amid all the zaniness, Lenny somehow manages to get what he was searching after — the dream girl — to right the supposed mistakes of his life.

In one sense, I cannot help but use the same lens as The Graduate. The scenarios are in some ways strikingly analogous. However, The Heartbreak Kid also owes a greater debt to the remarriage comedies of old, albeit without the imposition of the production code.

The Graduate dynamic might be partially coincidental and yet we have directors in Mike Nichols and Elaine May who famously came into the public eye as a comedic duo.  The creative realizations of the two films make sense because their type of specific, deeply insightful humor can rarely help but enter satirical territory. It comes with the intelligence and perceptiveness they bring to everything whether stand-up, directing, what have you.

The Graduate, of course, has this chaotic crescendo where Benjamin storms the church and runs off with the girl. The Heartbreak Kid is arguably even more devastating and yet it manages it through subtlety. In the lingering moments, Lenny is sitting on a couch in his second wedding reception. He’s gotten his prize — the girl he gave up everything for — but it’s strangely unsatisfying or at least when we look at him and the expression on his face, he seems unfulfilled.

Why is that? Maybe it’s some unnameable force, but I saw it to a greater extent at the end of The Graduate as well. Benjamin Braddock went through hell and back again to get a girl. Lenny’s journey was bumpy, but it also felt lighter, even low-key. Still, it goes out with a pop song too; again, more subdued and still, there’s a concerted effort to lead us obliquely into the unknown future.

The Graduate rode the pensive waves of Simon & Garfunkel while The Heartbreak Kid is provided a through-line by a cover version of The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Although there is no comparison, we have a similar connection to a cultural touchstone. May’s film couldn’t find a more straight-laced song to keep on calling on only succeeding further in contributing to the unsettling dissonance.

I’m no authority, to cover this topic in-depth, but I recall reading something to the effect that Nichols was very cognizant in casting someone very un-WASP-like in Dustin Hoffman. We could say the same of Lenny with all the locales he finds himself in, especially Minnesota. Whether merely implied or not, he is the outsider, both physically and culturally, in a similar manner.

May does well to take the dippy setup that feels very Neil Simon and pushing it deeper still. How a film about such a topic can be genuinely funny and somehow still manages slivers of warmth is beyond me. It’s a screwy feat of acuity, a true testament to the minds behind its creation.

4/5 Stars

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