Screening Alert: Elaine May’s Masterly “The Heartbreak Kid”

For many men of a certain generation, “The Heartbreak Kid” left the definitive imprint of a romantic ideal.

Turner Classic Movies, the great virtual American cinémathèque, comes once more to the rescue, tonight at 8 p.m. (2015), with a broadcast of a rare masterwork, “The Heartbreak Kid.” Released in 1972, it’s the one of Elaine May’s four films that has long been the hardest to get hold of (it was available on DVD more than a decade ago but is now out of print).

“The Heartbreak Kid” is also the May film that achieved the greatest prominence. Indeed, for many men of a certain generation (one that I’m just old enough for, by a whisker) and a certain milieu (mine, too), “The Heartbreak Kid” left the definitive imprint of a romantic ideal, that of the shiksa goddess. (A note on the presumed offensiveness of this Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman: the way I heard it used growing up, the term merely suggests forbiddenness: offense was intended not toward the Gentile woman but toward the Jewish man who got involved with her, just as “loot” suggests wealth wrongly acquired—it disparages the thief. Different families may have different experiences.) May—working with a script by Neil Simon, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman—in no way disparages the woman in question, played by Cybill Shepherd (it was only her second film, after Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show”). The movie most certainly disparages the young Jewish man who pursues her, but only so far—and it undoubtedly disparages the young Jewish woman he spurns for the shiksa goddess.

Here’s the idea: Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) and Lila Kolodny (Jeannie Berlin, May’s real-life daughter) are New York newlyweds. He’s a sporting-goods salesman, she’s enough of a traditionalist to make him wait until they’re married. May stints on the details, but the New York milieu is lower-middle-class; the wedding is at home, and Lenny has a City College banner on his wall. They’re not intellectuals, they’re not cultural aspirants; if they’re lucky, they’re future suburbanites.

The details that May doesn’t stint on are the tiny irritations that intrude like grit on the couple’s honeymoon, starting with their drive, in Lenny’s sports car, to Miami Beach. Suddenly, their close proximity chafes, and, though the unfiltered, awkward Lila is patient, mature, conciliatory, Lenny—seemingly also disappointed in the sex—quickly turns into what Lila calls a “grouch.” (There’s a wistful pathos in her declaration, “I married a grouch”—she’s well aware that she got no bargain, either.)

The directorial stroke on which the story pivots is worthy of the classic screwball comedies of which “The Heartbreak Kid” is an ethnic spin: on the first day in Miami, while awaiting Lila on the beach, Lenny meets—or, rather, is met by—the capricious, determined, graceful, witty Kelly Corcoran (Shepherd), a blond-haired, porcelain-complexioned college student from Minnesota who is, for Lenny, a walking New World. Kelly quickly wraps him around her deftly, self-consciously domineering finger and introduces him into the bosom of her family, which is headed by her wealthy banker father (Eddie Albert), who instantly despises him. (One magnificent touch: her mother, played by Audra Lindley, calls Lenny “Mr. Cantreau”—accent on the last syllable—and he corrects her.) Meanwhile, Lenny contrives ever more absurd ways to keep himself apart from Lila during the honeymoon in anticipation of the moment when he intends to “drop the bomb”—to declare that their marriage is, after several days, over.

Though often likened to a revision of “The Graduate,” by Mike Nichols (who was May’s performing partner in the fifties and early sixties), “The Heartbreak Kid” plays rather like a modern version of Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby.” Kelly’s breathless and ruthless romantic intelligence matches that of Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Susan Vance, the heiress who seduces David Huxley (Cary Grant), a bookish scientist, away from his fiancée (another scientist, who is seen only briefly and is called, with sublime obscenity, Miss Swallow). May’s film offers a glimpse of the situation from Miss Swallow’s perspective and a full view of the life that Huxley could have anticipated—had Huxley been a Jewish sporting-goods salesman whose wife came from his own milieu.

May’s film, for all its derisive pain and its twists of self-conscious self-loathing—which she tightens in extraordinary long takes that allow no escape and in pushy close-ups that suggest Smell-O-Vision—is a work of the culturally revolutionary moment. Lenny and Kelly themselves are no revolutionaries; they’re solid citizens of their well-established communities—and that’s the source of their revolutionary fervor. They don’t want to change the world; they want to change their lives. They’re insiders, inside of something, and they simply want to get out. Neither Lenny nor Kelly has ever met anyone like the other, and that’s more or less enough.

The transformations are rapid: Lenny, a seemingly plain and literal schlub, needs to win over not Kelly but her brusque, direct, contemptuous father (Eddie Albert’s performance is deliciously stiff-necked), and to do so, Lenny becomes a poet of a sort—he delivers a steady stream of unctuous bullshit that has a smarmy rhetorical sublimity of its own. He makes Eddie Haskell seem like Calvin Coolidge. (A superb verbal fillip: when Lenny tells the Minnesotans that he wants to give something back to the land, it can only be fertilizer.) Kelly, for her part, is also strictly under her father’s thumb, and Lenny is the lever to pry her out.

If there’s derision in May’s portrait of Lila, it’s rooted in a fundamental vision of the world: Lila is perfectly content where she is, she has no desire to get out, no desire to go beyond where she came from. She displays no spark of self-transformative energy, and that’s why Lila—for all her deep and tender compassion, her true and strong love, her devotion—is doomed. Lenny may be, as he calls himself, a schmuck, but he realizes it and, departing from the script of his life, improvises that role to an exalted extreme. He may be despicable, but his willful, self-recreating energy and Kelly’s are the engine of the world and the emblem of the times.

Source: Screening Alert: Elaine May’s Masterly “The Heartbreak Kid”

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