When it comes to pedigree, few comedies can go toe-to-toe with 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid.
Based on the 1966 short story “A Change of Plan” by Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the key post-war black humorists of American literature, the screenplay was adapted by legendary scribe of stage and screen Neil Simon—so much an institution in and of himself that his name precedes the film’s title—and directed by Elaine May, the groundbreaking sketch comedian turned New Hollywood auteur (turned post-New Hollywood casualty and cautionary tale). Alongside the late, great Charles Grodin, who it catapulted from a bit part player into a leading man, it also introduced audiences to May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin (so good that any skepticism owing to nepotism is immediately thwarted), and cemented Cybil Shepherd as her generation’s top It-girl.
The film was a hit with both audiences and critics, going on to nab major awards recognition, including two Oscar nominations (for Berlin and Eddie Albert as Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively). Since its release, The Heartbreak Kid has slipped from the larger popular consciousness, mostly due to its lack of availability—and the less said about the Farrelly Brothers’ 2007 remake, the better—but among its sizeable cult of admirers, it’s rightly regarded as one of the great American comedies.
I would go further than that. I would argue it is the Great American Black Comedy.
The Heartbreak Kid sees New York sports equipment salesman Larry Cantrow (Grodin) and his new bride Lila (Berlin) travel to Florida for their honeymoon, only for Larry to become immediately smitten with Kelly Corcoran (Shepherd), a beautiful Midwestern college student on vacation with her wealthy parents. The film is an upside down comedy of manners, as well as a subtle but devastating examination of the national character, in which ethnic, religious, class and familial anxieties combine to create a sense of tension and desperation so palpable that the viewer has no choice but to empathize with Cantrow. In doing so, they become complicit in his monstrous actions.
May showed a penchant for playful visual flourish with her debut film of the previous year, A New Leaf (the plot of which also centered around matrimonial betrayal), but she shoots The Heartbreak Kid straight-on, presenting everything in as unobtrusive and clear-eyed a manner as possible. That you don’t notice the filmmaking means you’re stuck watching Cantrow as he flails and connives and blusters and bullies his way through a series of deeply uncomfortable situations, spinning a web of lies to his increasingly incredulous (and heartbroken) wife in one scene, laying his cards on the table to the coldly furious father of his dream girl in the next. It’s hard to say which dinner set-piece is harder to watch–the prolonged freak-out that precedes his brutal dumping of Lila (“No pecan pie? No pecan pie!”) or the endless stream of bullshit he spews while trying to ingratiate himself to the Corcecan’s after his divorce is finalized (“There’s no deceit in the cauliflower”).
Today, this style of unrelenting awkwardness is known as ‘cringe comedy’, a genre in which The Heartbreak Kid must surely be recognized as a major progenitor (one need only look at Seinfeld, which pretty much repurposed its plot for an entire season’s arc). But while the protagonists of these stories are often unlikeable or even despicable, what makes The Heartbreak Kid so unique is the way it consistently plays against our expectations, leading us to a conclusion that is legitimately unsettling in its existential implications.
At the time of its release, The Heartbreak Kid received comparisons to the fiction (and subsequent movie adaptations) of novelist Philip Roth, particularly for the way it plays upon classic archetypes–some might say stereotypes–with a nebbish New York Jew attempting to run from his heritage, as embodied by a kvetchy schlemiel of a wife, and into the warm embrace of an impossibly lovely and graceful shiksa and her world of gentile respectability. Despite some reviews that charged the story with being antisemitic (claims that, like those levied against Roth, read as even more laughably stupid today than they did at the time), most recognized it as a complex and subtle—there’s that word again—exploration of Jewish identity.
May takes those aforementioned archetypes and gives them real depth, defying our expectations at almost every turn. For all that Cantrow can be grumpy and high strung, he is explicitly not a neurotic intellectual type, but rather a go-getter whose sense of can-do optimism is very much in line with the ethos of WASP America. Lila is loud and talkative, a little messy and very unlucky, but she’s hardly a ball-busting shrew. Rather, she’s endearingly sweet and casually sexy, and it’s only because Shepherd is such an otherworldly beauty that the audience can understand Cantrow’s actions at all (Simon initially wanted to cast Diane Keaton as Lila, but May nixed the idea, correctly noting that the physical and ethnic disparity between her and Shepherd wasn’t great enough). Kelly, meanwhile, is everything we expect from the Miss America type: as spoiled and solipsistic as she is bright and charming (her deep cruel streak evident in the way she toys with Cantrow and shows zero concern for Lila’s predicament), but ultimately, her attraction to Cantrow proves genuine.
And then there’s Mr. Corcoran. While his open contempt of Cantorw is entirely understandable, it contains an undercurrent of prejudice visible from the first. It’s not necessarily antisemitic prejudice—the characters’ religion and ethnicity are never commented upon explicitly, although the duel wedding montages that open and close the film, which take place in a synagogue and Christian church respectively, bring this theme to the fore—but it’s clear that equal to Cantrow’s moral midgetry, Mr. Corcoran despises him for being a, let’s say, ‘East Coast type’.
These scenes also put the film’s class anxieties into sharp relief. It’s there in the way the wealthy Corcoran (a banker by trade) patronizes Cantrow’s humble profession selling “sticks and balls”, and finds its ultimate expression in his attempts to bribe him into leaving his daughter alone. May reserves one of the biggest surprises for the latter scene: we expect that, as the figure rises, Cantrow will surely start to consider the offer, but he never does. Ultimately, even capitalism is no match for the male libido.
This brings us to the film’s conclusion, wherein Cantrow weds Kelly, with the begrudging blessing of a clearly exhausted Mr. Corcoran as well as that of the larger community. During the reception, Cantrow finds himself mingling amidst a sea of, as they are described in the original story, “strange blond people with great Scandinavian profiles”, and gradually realizing how much of an outsider he truly is, his deep well of bullshit quickly exhausted so that he’s left him empty and isolated.
The ending of The Heartbreak Kid is often compared to the ending of The Graduate—directed, of course, by May’s former comedy partner Mike Nichols, and for which the lead role had initially been offered to Grodin, who turned it down. But while they are remarkable in many ways (not least of all their setting), The Graduate ends on a moment of slow-dawning doubt with a hint of regret, whereas The Heartbreak Kid ends on a moment of recognition and resignation. Our hero has achieved everything he set out to and got everything he wanted, and yet it’s not enough to give him happiness.
Key to the ending’s success is that it contains no twist, as does the original story (in which Cantrow makes a rash attempt to seduce his new mother in law) or the film’s scrapped alternate ending (wherein Cantrow and Kelly embark on their honeymoon, only for Cantrow to discover his new bride has personal habits as upsetting to him as Lila’s). These endings are simply too neat—the former turns Cantrow into too much of an outright villain, thus making it easier for the viewer to condemn him, while the latter puts too ironic a button on the story, giving him his just deserts and letting the audience off the hook. (Similarly, it’s important that the film leave Lila a blubbering, sobbing mess and that we never catch up with her—it would have been a cop-out to give her a happy or even dignified ending.)
Instead, The Heartbreak Kid keeps its audience trapped with Cantrow to the bitter end. To hell with any catharsis.