Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kidding

I just watched the original Heartbreak Kid, released in 1972.  Starring Charles Grodin, it's directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon.  I haven't seen it in at least twenty years, and this time around, certain things stuck out.

First, this was a mainstream hit comedy back then, but it's practically an art film by today's standards.  The film has some scope--set in New York, Miami and Minnesota--but most scenes are just two people talking for fairly long periods of time.  Comedies today require more action, and more editing.

Second, though Jeannie Berlin is quite memorable as Grodin's first wife--she deserved her Oscar nomination--I didn't know Elaine May's work so well last time I saw it.  Now that I do, I couldn't help but notice, as May's daughter, how similar her voice sounded.  Since Elaine May is a gifted comic actress, it actually made me wish she was playing the part.  I guess she was too old, though just the year before she played, in essence, the ingénue role in A New Leaf, also directed by May.  And she did a great job in that underappreciated gem.

Third, this is a rare Neil Simon screenplay that doesn't seem like a Neil Simon screenplay.  He wrote a ton of movies and most feature his wisecracking style.  This time the story, though comic, gets most of its laughs from the characters simply being their outrageous selves.  This could be because he's adapting a Bruce Jay Friedman story (which I've never read) and, as opposed to most of his films, which are either adaptations of his own work or original ideas, he wanted to remain true to his source.  Or perhaps it's the hand of May, who was a fine comic writer herself

Fourth, there's the acting.  There are really only four full characters in the film--Lenny (Grodin), his wife Lila (Berlin), Kelly whom he chases after (Cybill Shepherd) and Kelly's father Mr. Corcoran (Eddie Albert).  They may all be giving their best movie performances ever, probably thanks to May. They play something close to caricatures--Albert as the stern father (another Oscar nomination) and Shepherd as the vacuous blonde--but they play them all so straight and serious that the film seems to take place in something mirroring the real world, but not quite.

Fifth, I've been told that the filmmakers may have changed the meaning of the original story by making the first wife so Jewish and the second so Waspy.  Lenny can come across as a Jewish kid on the make who dumps his first wife on their honeymoon when he's got a shot at a shiksa goddess.  Apparently the women weren't quite so different in Friedman's original.  In any case, I think that misses the point.  Lenny is a voracious but empty man who always wants, and when he gets something, wants something else.  He becomes obsessed with whatever's in front of him, but he can never be fulfilled.  Sounds like a fun comedy, doesn't it?

By the way, the Farrelly Brothers remade The Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller in 2007, but aside from keeping the basic plot, changed it so much that it's a different thing.  Too bad it doesn't work.

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