The end of 1972 saw the release of The Heartbreak Kid, featuring Neil Simon’s third original screenplay and directed by Elaine May. Charles Grodin had the title role, with newcomer Cybil Sheppard, known primarily for her work in the previous year’s The Last Picture Show, as the object of his affections. A modest success, it got mixed critical reviews but only made a cool 5 mil, far less than its budget.
Grodin is Lenny Cantrow, a Jewish sporting goods salesman who a woman named Lila. Their Miami Beach honeymoon promises excitement, but Lenny doesn’t seem to be enjoying it – or her, for that matter. Talk of spending the rest of their lives together is particularly irksome, as is her neglect of the use of suntan lotion, rendering an incapacitating burn and a few days freedom for the new groom. At the beach, Lenny spots a gorgeous blonde named Kelly, and they hit it off pretty quickly. Nothing seems to stand in his way to land her – not even her WASPy dad who can’t stand the boy’s living guts. But Lenny tells lie after lie to his wife, until he breaks the news to her that he wants out of the marriage. It does not go over well.
After the divorce, Lenny follows Kelly to her freezing Minnesota home. She’s cool to him at first, far preferring the company of her equally blonde college boyfriends. But Lenny is nothing if not persistent, and he soon crushes her defenses. Now all that’s left is dad, and, despite an ominous dinner conversation, even the formidable Mr. Corcoran must admire Lenny’s tenacity. They marry, but the wedding feels a whole heck of a lot like his previous one, replete with the same song (“Close To You”). What’s that expression… be careful what you wish for?
A few observations off the bat. First, this is the least typical of Simon’s works to date. No one-liners, no comedy motifs, no feel good ending, or even musical theme, for that matter. This is more of a director’s film, and May does a superb job of keeping the style simple and verite (I wouldn’t be surprised if she stripped away half of Simon’s script). The dialogue has a spare, natural cadence, and it certainly helps to create a then-in-vogue mood of understatement.
Make no mistakes: this is a dark comedy. No, make that a dark, existential comedy. Lenny is a nebbish Jew longing for that blonde sun goddess, the “acquisition” of whom seems to make him unhappier than ever, as the film’s ambiguous ending suggests (reminding me somewhat of the ambivalent finale of The Graduate). As such, it’s more along the lines of the literary works Phillip Roth or Modechai Richler than anything Simon’s done before.
So I wonder – why did the feel-good playwright pen such a dark work? It begins as farcical look at adultery (like Blake Edwards’ 10), but we know something’s up – since most comedies about infidelities occur near the end of a long marriage or before, like during an engagement. Grodin is good in his role but too off-center for mass consumption, and certainly not terribly likeable once he divorces his wife on a few days. It’s this last part that feels particularly disturbing, especially given how appealing Jeannie Berlin is as Lila, and how heart-wrenching her reaction is to him announcing their separation. There’s no pillow for the punch here, either; after that scene we never see Lila again, and our last image of her is one of abject heartbreak.
I suspect Simon was writing from his heart, warts and all. After exploring a benign look at infidelity in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, here he sees the action, and its repercussions, more fuzzily, more honestly. And if that means less funny, so be it. Not everything need be a hammy Vaudeville routine. This was a different turn for the writer, one exhibiting maturity and change. The fact that it is now considered an underrated gem is evidence of that. Perhaps I will see it later in a different light, but I do have to admit it depressed me somewhat, and that was probably its intention.
P.S: Friend of mine saw the film and observed that it was a simple plot, with just the suspense of wondering which way it was gonna go – after all his longing of this blonde he would either lose her, heedless of the stacked deck against him, or get her, summoning up the resolve necessary to achieve such a task.
Fair enough, if choose to see it that way. But I reminded him that you need to look beyond the surface for this one. You have to read between the lines to see what May and Simon are trying to reveal about human obsession. In Lenny’s case, it’s hurtful, to himself and his loved ones. In no time at all he’ll discard Kelly like he did Lila. And at the end of it all he’ll wind up like Jack Nicholson at the end of Carnal Knowledge, showing slides of all his girlfriends.