Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

The Heartbreak Kid(1972)
Directed by Elaine May
Written by Neil Simon
Based upon "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman
Starring:  Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepard, Eddie Albert, Jeannie Berlin, Audra Lindley
IMDB Entry

I figured I should get this in before the Farrelly Brothers version hits screens this fall.  Nothing against the Farrellys (though they don't appeal to me much), but this is a film that needn't be remade.  The original was perfect (and from the trailer, I'm not hopeful about the new version).

Consider who was involved.  Bruce Jay Friedman was a major short story writer of the 60s.  Not literary (though he appeared in literary magazines), but with a warped sense of humor and a keen eye for human nature. Though I've treasured his story collection Far from the City of Class, I have not read "A Change of Plan," but the title alone is pure Friedman: an ironic understatement.

Neil Simon, of course, was already the toast of Broadway with an already long list of successful stage comedies. The rap on Simon at the time was that he was funny, but his characters had no depth (his Brighton Beach Memoirs changed perceptions) and that he went for the funny lines at the expense of characters.  In this, though, his screenplay stays away from wisecracks (I only noticed one) in favor of Friedman's vision.

Finally, Elaine May was considered one of the bright lights of sketch comedy, and her previous movie A New Leaf, had shown her to be a director of note.  The financial (though not artistic) fiasco of Ishtar was several years in the future.

The film is a real gem.  It's definitely May's best, but also had great roles for several of its stars.

The story is simple.  Charles Grodin (in his first major role) plays Lenny Cantrell, who is off on his honeymoon with Lila (Jeannie Berlin).  But as they drive south from New York to their hotel in Miami, Lenny begins to think he may have made a mistake.  And when he's there, he meets Kelly Corc\oran from Minnesota (Cybil Shepard) and decides she is the one for him.

So, he decides to fix his mistake.

Two scenes really stand out (out of many).  One is when Lenny explains to Kelly's parents (Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley) that he's fallen deeply in love with their daughter and wants to marry him.  There's only one small problem: he's on his honeymoon.  Albert does not take this well.  The scene is shot in a single take, the four principals framed so that you can see their reactions as Lenny goes through a long, sincere speech explaining what he wants to do.  It's all Lenny until he finishes, yet the reaction of the others -- Shepard's affection, Lindley's bewilderment, and Albert's slowly building anger -- is terrific.

The second is when Lenny finally tells Lila.  He takes her out to dinner at a restaurant famous for their pecan pie.  But they're out, and Lenny makes a ridiculous fuss over it.  It's clearly his way of putting off what he wants to tell Lila, and it has the same emotionally edgy humor that made Nichols and May the top comedy team of their day.

The real astounding performance here is Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter. Lila starts out nice and slowly begins to do things that make Lenny's decision reasonable.  She says the wrong things, does the wrong things, and makes you think that Lenny is better off without her.  Then, in one scene, she turns it all around, becoming a sad and pathetic figure and making it clear she is the one being wronged (looking at the trailer for the remake, they seem to be eliminating the sympathy in favor of turning Lila into a caricature). .  It is an award-worthy performance (and she did get an Oscar nomination and a couple of film critics awards for it). Alas, she made very little else (her starring vehicle, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, was a flop) afterwards.  Jeannie was not really leading lady material, but she had great potential in comic and second lead roles at the very least.

Groden is also great as Lenny, making a guy whose dumping his wife seem sympathetic.  You understand his reasons, yet, in the final scene, he shows that there are other reasons he doesn't understand.  Our reaction to Lenny is as complex as it is to Lila, and I'm afraid the remake will dumb it down.

Albert is a long way from Oliver Douglas in this, and gives a fine performance.  He never likes Grodin in the first place, and when he learns the story, his angry consternation is fun to behold.

The cast did well afterwards. Grodin, of course, has had a successful career.  Eddie Albert was already established (he'd already done Green Acres) and had continued success.  Cybil Shepard has become a star in her previous film, The Last Picture Show, and has also been successful, and Lindley (whose role here is pretty minor) became Mrs. Roper.

The only ones who had no later success were the two who were primarily responsible for making this a great film:  May and Berlin.  Such is Hollywood.

I hope the remake is better than the trailers indicate, but you owe it to yourself to see the original.

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