Movies You Might Have Missed: Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid

The 1972 Neil Simon-written comedy ‘The Heartbreak Kid’, starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd, is one of the most unusual romantic comedies ever made

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Neil Simon has received more Oscar and Emmy nominations than any other writer in history. His work, particularly for the stage, marks him out as one of the most significant and popular American comic voices of the past century.

Elaine May, while a less bankable commodity, has an idiosyncratic tone that’s similarly characterised by a New York-Jewish point of view. These two titans collaborated on The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and the result was one of the darkest and most unusual romantic comedies ever made.

Released just a year after May’s equally unconventional A New Leaf, the film stars Charles Grodin as Lenny, a pathetically shallow man-child before such a character had become a sitcom trope. We open with a wedding, but a Richard Curtis movie this is not. Lenny is marrying Lila (played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin, one of her final films prior to a decades-long hiatus from acting) before the pair head off on honeymoon. By the time they’ve completed the drive to Miami Beach, Lila’s irritating behaviour and uncouth attempts to eat egg salad have turned her mercurial husband off. 

Things go from bad to worse once the newlyweds reach the hotel. Lila becomes so severely sunburned that Lenny insists she remain quarantined in the bedroom. Alone on the beach, he becomes infatuated with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a stunning yet stunningly manipulative college student on holiday with her family. Will Lenny really turn his back on marriage after just a few days? Let’s just say the Seinfeld concept of “shiks-appeal” (the attraction of Jewish men to non-Jewish women) can have far-reaching consequences.

There is a bleakness about the film that no amount of gross-out gags in the Farrelly brothers remake could possibly make up for. Lenny insists this blonde bombshell is the woman he’s been waiting for his whole life and he simply “timed it wrong”. It is an unusually expansive work for Simon, perhaps as a result of the fact that it’s not adapted from one of his own plays. May, who began her career in a double act with the great Mike Nichols, instinctively understands comedy and manages to wring every last laugh out of the film’s manifold set-pieces.

This is one of only four films directed by May, her career behind the camera effectively ended in 1987 by the critical and commercial disaster that was Ishtar. It’s a shame because, for a brief moment, it looked like she just might reinvent the very concept of American screen comedy and become an auteur to rival Woody Allen. Still, the performances she coaxes out of Grodin, Shepherd and Berlin are tremendous and her legacy as a director is assured.

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