Friday, April 15, 2016

The Films of Elaine May: The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Directed by: Elaine May.
Written by: Neil Simon based on the story by Bruce Jay Friedman.
Starring: Charles Grodin (Lenny Cantrow), Cybill Shepherd (Kelly Corcoran), Jeannie Berlin (Lila Kolodny), Audra Lindley (Mrs. Corcoran), Eddie Albert (Mr. Corcoran).
The Heartbreak Kid is one of the best American comedies of the 1970s – and one that continues to be relevant and influential to this day. At the time, many saw it as a response to The Graduate (1967) directed by Mike Nichols, May’s former comedy partner. And in some ways, you can understand why that is, as both films center on young, Jewish men who fall for a wealthy WASP princess, and end up heading off into an uncertain future at the end. Nichols’ film is a certified classic – it ranked in the top 10 of the AFI’s top 100 List of all time in 1997, and in the top 20 in 2008 – and won Nichols a Best Director Oscar. While The Heartbreak Kid was the biggest hit – critically and commercially – of May’s too-short directing career, it hasn’t entered the canon in quite the same way as Nichols film. Yet, it should be. While The Graduate is probably a better directed film – Nichols was certainly playing with different techniques, whereas May is a little more straight forward, if I’m being honest, I think about May’s films – and its haunting final scene far more than I do about The Graduate. While I think The Graduate has aged a little bit, The Heartbreak Kid remains much more relevant. It’s brand of wince comedy – where you laugh nervously, because the scene in front of you is so painfully awkward and realistic – is more prevalent today than it was in 1972 – making this film a forerunner. The Heartbreak Kid is a masterwork – a film that gets better each time I revisit it, even if doing so is painful.
The film stars Charles Grodin as Lenny Cantrow – a young, Jewish man in “athletic equipment”. His girlfriend is Lila (Jeannie Berlin – May’s daughter, playing a character not unlike May’s in A New Leaf – except with the annoying level cranked up to 11). In a very brief opening segment, she refuses to sleep with him until they get married – so, of course, that’s what they do. They then pack the car up, and head on a long drive from New York to Miami for the Honeymoon. The first day feels like bliss – the newlyweds singing in the car together, having fun, having sex in the motel at night, etc. Then, each passing day, gets worse and worse – Lila continues singing the same damn song, she nags at Lenny, over-and-over again during sex, looking for reassurance. And, when she eats, she makes a complete mess of herself. In short, even before Lenny and Lila get to Miami, he is well on his way to hating her – even if she still seems like she’s in a state of blissful ignorance.
Things only get worse once they are in Miami. The two go sunbathing – and despite Lenny warning her, Lila doesn’t put on sunscreen, and gets a horrible sunburn. Lenny doesn’t mind that too much however – because he’s already met Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) – a blonde, university student goddess – vacationing with her rich parents (Audra Lindley and Eddie Albert). Kelly is a flirt, and its clear to the audience from their first meeting that she enjoys toying with Lenny – seeing just how much she can get him wrapped around her little finger (completely) – and how much she can use him to anger her father (a lot).
This was Grodin’s breakthrough role – and in many ways, he never topped it. Here is wonderful here – whether he’s trying to win Kelly’s affection, making up one ludicrous excuse after another to get out of spending any time with Lila on their honeymoon, or trying, with complete sincerity and honesty, to win over Kelly father – who clearly, and rightly, hates his guts. It is a wonderful performance, where Grodin hardly ever shuts up (making that last moment in the film, which we’ll get to, all the more potent). Grodin is at his best here in several, painfully awkward and protracted dinner sequences – including a 12 minute a breakup scene with Lila – which always has been diving for cover, as the scene is simultaneously hilarious and painful – really, it’s one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie – and it’s made more so by just how clueless and happy Berlin makes Lila in that sequence right up until Lenny drops the bomb on her.
While Grodin is the star of the movie, the rest of the cast is nearly as good. Berlin and Albert received deserved Oscar nominations for their performances. Berlin makes Lila incredibly annoying to be sure – but there’s an undercurrent of sweet, naiveté about her as well.  She’s insecure – after all, she’s young, immature, a newlywed, and has just lost her virginity to boot. She genuinely just wants to spend with her husband – who she clearly loves – on their honeymoon, which is normal. It’s a brilliant comedic performance – and also one that breaks your heart a little bit. Eddie Albert is a deadpan gem in the film – he looks at Grodin’s Lenny with utter and complete contempt in each and every one of their interactions – even before he has any real reason to hate Lenny, he does. He’s the only character who calls Lenny out on his bullshit.
Then there is Shepherd’s Kelly – who to me remains an enigmatic mystery at the heart of the movie. You can argue whether or not Shepherd was a great actress in the 1970s – yet you cannot argue that two great directors – Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese – used her to presence wonderfully well as the personification of female perfection in The Last Picture Show (1971) – which punctures that perfection a little, and Taxi Driver (1976), which doesn’t. Her role in The Heartbreak Kid is seemingly very similar – the beautiful, unattainable, rich blonde, who toys with the hero – which Shepherd does quite well. What I still don’t really understand about the movie is why, in the final act, does she fall for Lenny? Up until then, it seems like she is merely jerking him around because she can – even after he shows up in Minnesota, newly divorced, for her. But she does fall for him. I’ve never been sure if this is a merely an element of the plot that needs to be there – they ending doesn’t work without it – or if it was deliberate on the part of May and screenwriter Neil Simon. Surely, she doesn’t go as far as she does merely to piss off her father, does she? Is it something deeper than that? In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said that Kelly was “in a lot of ways the most interesting character in the movie” and that “She's so inapproachably beautiful that, in a way, all she can do with men is tease and taunt them -- they're too hypnotized to treat her as if she were alive and accessible.” – Which is true of all the other men in the movie other than Lenny. Is that really all it is – that Lenny pursues her so relentlessly, and shows her devotion. Does she really “hunger for love even more than Lenny” as Ebert said? I’m honestly not sure – but every time I watch the film, I find myself watching Kelly closer and closer – trying to crack her. I’m haven’t got there yet, but it’s fascinating just the same.
The final scene of the movie is simple perfection. After spending the entire movie, constantly on, constantly talking, constantly scheming, Lenny has a moment of quiet by himself, humming a very particular tune we heard earlier in the film, the look on his face far from the exuberance you may expect since he has just gotten what he wanted for the entirety of the movie. When I first saw the film, I took that look to be one quiet emptiness – the moment that he realizes how he everything he wanted, and he still isn’t happy. I still think that’s part of it – or could be. But I see that look somewhat differently now – or at least more ambiguously. What the hell is Lenny thinking in that moment? We’ll never know for sure – but it is a moment that I continually come back. It is the perfect end to this brilliant film - a moment of confidence on the part of Grodin, May and Simon, who spent the entire film filling the silence, and then makes us sit with it in the end.

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