Heartbreaker

Lovefool July 5, 2021 
  

On The Heartbreak Kid

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n Elaine May’s bruisingly funny The Heartbreak Kid (1972), the late Charles Grodin — in one of his too-few leading-man parts — is Lenny Cantrow, a neurotic

New York City-bred sporting-goods salesman getting married to a young woman named Lila (Jeannie Berlin). We’re nervous as they’re saying “I do.” This couple has only been dating a few months, hasn’t yet slept together, is ostensibly facing a lot of familial pressure to tie the knot, and doesn’t seem to be all that passionate about each other. That early nervousness turns out to be one of the more relaxing stretches in The Heartbreak Kid, a movie entirely made up of bad decisions that make us want to curl up in a ball and promptly die.

A day into the honeymoon — moments after Lenny and Lila have had sex for the first time, to be precise — Lenny begins having roaringly

loud second thoughts about his bride. In subsequent scenes, which linger on little annoyances (like the way Lila chews with her mouth open; her needs for constant reassurance in the bedroom), you can feel Lenny’s dread mounting, made harder to watch because of Lila’s obliviousness to his unease. “Now we have the rest of our lives — 40, 50, 60, 100 years,” she says eagerly in one early scene, not noticing her husband’s ambivalence. 

 

Once the pair gets to Miami Beach, Lenny tries to put his best foot forward; he’s singing happily as he unpacks his suitcase. But then Lila gets so severely sunburned after an afternoon on the beach that she can hardly move. Then, while out alone, Lenny meets a blonde beauty from Minnesota named Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) who is decidedly everything Lila is not: elegant, witty, assured. It’s almost comical how well she lives up to the girl-next-door ideal. Lenny is immediately smitten — like a cartoon character whose eyes have just turned into collages of hearts and stars. Although Kelly is just as flirtatious as he is, their interests are markedly mismatched. You can sense Kelly is being dangerously projected on — she’ll be the woman to save him from this bad-vibed marriage, Lenny seems to have immediately concluded. (With the sun directly behind her head the first time she enters the frame, Kelly looks like an angel.) College-aged Kelly, in contrast, seems, for now, to just want a man she can escape with on a vacation domineered by her stern father, Mr. Corcoran (Eddie Albert). 

 

Since Lila will have to "quarantine" for at least a couple of days, Lenny sees this as his chance to get to know Kelly. He makes excuses to his bed-ridden beau about having to see an old Army buddy who happens to be staying at the resort, a car crash that turns a day trip into an all-night outing. His desires have completely smothered common sense. He’s not thinking about what’s going through Lila’s head as she spends her days alone, watching old black-and-white romances on their hotel-room TV and nervously combing her hair. He’s not even thinking about the general optics of not spending any time with your wife on your honeymoon. 

 

The only person who senses what’s going on, and is quick to detect Lenny’s reckless solipsism, is Mr. Corcoran, who doesn’t hide his hatred for his daughter’s fling. When Lenny boldly tells the family of his blonde infatuation over a dinner he's hesitantly invited to that his marriage has already fallen through, and that he intends to drop everything for Kelly (before he’s even told Lila!), Mr. Corcoran, a stand-in for most audience members, is hilariously pissed. When Lenny asks for approval, Mr. Corcoran is shockingly blunt: “Not if they hung me from a tree and put a lit bomb in my mouth...I don’t like one goddamn thing about you.” Albert’s performance is one of my favorite things about the movie. He’s a missile of good sense, and we find some relief having someone match our opinion that Lenny, for all intents and purposes, is a loathsome fool.

Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd in 1972's The Heartbreak Kid.

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his is unambiguously a very depressing story — an account of rash destruction inflicted by a man unhealthily dominated more by aspiration than reality. But May has a deft touch that makes The Heartbreak

Kid more riveting and awkwardly funny (every laugh in the movie is inextricable from discomfort) than entirely detestable. It's a sharp study of how unfulfilling it is to desire and nothing else. Lenny is undoubtedly monstrous, but May and writer Neil Simon don’t draw his character — or really anything in the movie — with a myopia that would make him simplistically condemnatory. We’re captivated by how he flails. He’s a memorable character because we can fundamentally relate to many of the things eating at him — his worry over what a marriage he knows will likely be unfulfilling could do to his life; a preoccupation with wanting more than what he has; an acute anxiety about where he’s going — while being mortified by how he externalizes those apprehensions. Our simultaneous identification and disgust with him create an interesting tension.

 

Lenny is incapable of stopping his worst impulses. He’s so obsessed with staving off his own malaise that when he inevitably breaks up with Lila (which might be the film’s best-realized scene) and she says in response that she thinks she’s going to throw up, Lenny ignores her plea to go to the bathroom so that he can continue smothering her with assurances that don’t suit what she needs but rather make him feel like he’s doing the right thing. (He practically shoves her down back into her chair and forces a glass of water down her throat.) Berlin, who is May’s daughter in real life and presumably a sort of bizarro image of the filmmaker, looks like she’s been kicked in the stomach when the realization that her five-day-old marriage is over has hit her. Her sympathetic performance makes us heartsick, and we can’t help but keep thinking about Lila long after the movie has finished. 

 

Most people in The Heartbreak Kid prioritize a person’s transactional value over real connection; Lenny is just the most harmful in how he lets the tendency manifest. Kelly, after late in the movie agreeing to a longer-term relationship with him, seems to view her chaotic pursuant as a means to get away from her WASPy upbringing. And Lila, who regularly brings up the “forever” aspect of marriage (“are you going to be grouchy for the next 50 years?” she asks Lenny), seems like a naïf more in love with ideas of marriage bringing a person greater value than Lenny himself. You notice that Lenny never has any meaningful conversations with Lila or Kelly in the course of The Heartbreak Kid; it would crease the images he’s developed for them. The Heartbreak Kid superficially ends happily — Lenny gets what he thinks he wants — but it’s intrinsically tragic. Once a fantasy-come-true has run its course, what comes next if it has no solid basis? This is a perceptive tragicomedy about one man’s slow death by toxic idealization. A