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Reviews Seventies Screwball

The Heartbreak Kid

The Heartbreak Kid

Elaine May

USA, 1972

Credits

Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 18 May 2010

Source Anchor Bay DVD

Categories Seventies Screwball

To have and to hold, to love and to cherish—‘til you realize, it’s a mistake. Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid pits the rise of the disaffected young American male against the sacred institution of marriage, revealing dark truths about both with the sort of humor that induces a wince with nearly every laugh. Released five years after The Graduate (directed by May’s former stand-up partner, Mike Nichols), The Heartbreak Kid is both kinder and crueler than its predecessor; Leonard Kantrow could very well be Benjamin Braddock’s East Coast cousin, rejecting the rules of marriage with nearly as much purpose as Benjamin’s disavowal of plastics.

Lenny and his fiancé Lila marry (after a montage of what feels like the briefest of courtships) and set off on an exhilarating drive to Miami Beach for their honeymoon. The ensuing roadtrip is a quick plummet to reality for Lenny, whose long awaited consummation with Lila results in the facial reaction equivalent of a train wreck. The disaster continues through several states: Lila’s somewhat of a slob, unable to wipe food off her face, and demonstrates postcoital affections that only irritate Lenny, as she constantly reminds her new husband of exactly how long he’ll have to put up with (or as they say, get used to) her ways; only the next “forty or fifty years.” Lila sounds like your sixty-five-year-old grandmother, Lenny is so panicked he can barely speak, and it’s suddenly clear how little these newlyweds know one another.

The Heartbreak Kid isn’t knocking marriage, but rather the often selfish and old-fashioned reasons that propel people to the altar. Reflecting the 70s zeitgeist, you don’t stick it out with your new husband or wife; marriage is disposable, increasingly easy to annul when you do meet the right person, even if that someone just happens to be staying at the same resort on your honeymoon. For Lenny, it’s Minnesota goddess Kelly Corcoran, whose shimmering golden locks put Lenny is such a state you wonder if he’s ever seen a blonde before. Kelly’s brief flirtations are all it takes to convince Leonard that this is the one he’s waiting for “all my life,” and he’s determined to have her.

Charles Grodin’s (who was considered for Benjamin in The Graduate) portrayal of Lenny is a delicate balance, oscillating between sympathy and disgust. Lila may be awkward, yet he treats her with such increasing apathy that it’s hard not to hate Leonard. Yet it’s abundantly clear that Lenny and Lila shouldn’t be together, not only for their hasty nuptials but mainly because Lenny entirely lacks self-awareness. Grodin’s performance perfectly demonstrates Lenny’s man-child qualities; unable to grasp what it is he wants out of life, Lenny seeks inner gratification with both women, although neither will provide a solution.

The selfishness that motivates Leonard extends to both Kelly – who seems fixated on controlling the men in her life – and Mr. Corcoran, who can’t bear the idea of losing his daughter, especially to a New York Jew. The clash of Jew vs. Wasp, as depicted by May, results in both incredibly funny, pointed dialogue (when Kelly’s family switches resorts, it’s due to Mr. Corcoran “not liking the element”) and visual gags, such as Leonard spying Kelly on university campus, flanked by a blond Adonis on each side. Bookended by Leonard’s first marriage to Lila (complete with several generations of Lila’s family and a jovial rendition of “Hava Nagila”) and his second to Kelly (a marble church and Martha Stewart-esque bridal party), May accentuates Leonard’s cultural crossover with a keen eye; however he alters his settings, his goals or the people around him, the fact remains that Lenny is the same unfulfilled person he always was.

The Heartbreak Kid concludes with Lenny’s drawn-out victory, as he marries the supposed girl of his dreams. Yet at the reception, he drifts from his bride, and spends his time with the children in attendance, musing how once upon a time, “I was ten.” May’s film is a precise portrait of a lost Peter Pan, whose bewilderment at adulthood still rings painfully true with the spirit of our own time.

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