THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) – Beauty and the nebbishy beast

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Why do we always want what we can’t have? And what would happen if we actually got it? Director Elaine May, working from a script by Neil Simon based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, examines the answers under a harsh microscope in the bitter black comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

In this instance, the “we” is Jewish nebbish Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a getting-by sporting goods salesman. Shortly after his Jewish honeymoon with the former Lila Kolodny (Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin) begins, he is alone on the beach when he meets what he can’t have — a perky WASP blonde named Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Having endured a road trip from New York with his newlywed bride — during which the thought of 50 ensuing years with his less-than-perfect wife has solidified in his mind — he sees idyllic freedom in the form of flitting, flirty Kelly. Now all he has do is ditch his new bride to get what he thinks he has always wanted. Simple, right?

Far from it. He does his best to talk his way out of everything pre-Lila and seems to have snookered everyone — except for Kelly’s rich, tough-as-nails father (Eddie Albert).

It’s definitely a black comedy, with hardly a likable person in it (except, perhaps, for naive Lila). But the movie never pushes for its effects. May simply examines this roundelay of people in long, rich takes, documentary style.

You can easily believe that Lenny is some kind of salesman. He uses endless strings of almost-convincing lies to connive Lila while doing everything he can to convince Kelly and her father of his sincerity. Once Lenny starts on this quest of acceptance from the WASPs, he deludes himself into believing that the sincerity of his cause is enough to carry him through the rest of his life — a life for which he has no current plan, except to win over Kelly.

I have only a couple of quibbles with The Heartbreak Kid. The movie does all it can to uglify poor Lily — giving her character quirks to make her look shnooky, lathering her in sunburn makeup. I’m guessing that 1972 audiences derisively laughed at her in contrast to Kelly’s WASP perfection, but I found Lila’s quirks rather endearing, as any truly loving groom would. I suppose that’s part of the point the movie is trying to make, but I think the movie tries a little too hard to make Lila a slobbery house pet in Lenny’s eyes.

My other problem is with Mr. Corcoran, Kelly’s watchdog father. Eddie Albert (also nominated for an Oscar) is absolutely fabulous, subtly showing the dad’s simmering dislike for Lenny with only body language and a few well-chosen words (as opposed to Lenny, of course, who can’t shut up). It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t explore the father’s uncomfortable fixation on his daughter a little more deeply.

But in the end, these are minor faults. Without getting too deep about it, what The Heartbreak Kid is really about is how cinema (at least up to 1972) shaped people’s ideas of what true beauty really is, and how it made some people (such as stalker-y Lenny) want to go overboard in order to obtain it.

(My thanks to Debbie of the blog Moon in Gemini for her recommendation of this fascinating and funny movie.)