Saturday 2 July 2016

1,001 Films: "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972)

Overshadowed, to some degree, by the towering reputation of The Graduate, The Heartbreak Kid nevertheless remains a superior example of "fools rush in" romantic comedy, and much revered by comedy writers and students of all ages. (Most notably the Farrelly brothers, who remade it to no great ends in 2007.) In part, that's because its gags derive from credible situations and character choices rather than manufactured schtick; in this, the film is very much a product of the new realism that flourished in the American cinema of the early 1970s. Impossibly romantic sporting-goods salesman Charles Grodin hastens his latest girlfriend (Jeannie Berlin) up the aisle - seemingly to get anywhere beyond second base - only to spend the couple's honeymoon in Miami Beach regretting his rashness, as the bride reveals herself to be needy, clingy, and the messiest of messy eaters. When the latter is sidelined by second-degree sunburn, our ungallant hero hits the beach and once more falls head over heels, this time for well-bred Cybill Shepherd, as you probably would. The remainder of the honeymoon plays out on just the right side of farce, as Grodin strives to be in two places, with two very different women, at once - oblivious to the fact he may just be making the same mistakes all over again.

As a guy, I have to confess it's impossible not to empathise with at least of the plight the central character gets himself in; the actor's unfailing charm, in fact, gets the screenplay out of several potential dead ends. Written by Neil Simon but directed by Elaine May, the whole does remarkably well to keep the maleness of the premise (the fantasy of the Shepherd character, a keen wearer of football jerseys; the misogyny around the first wife) in check throughout, something the Farrellys notably failed to do. Any qualms regarding the characterisation of the nagging, needy wife - a dubious staple of Seventies screen and sitcom - need to be set against our growing admiration for the skill and dignity with which Berlin inhabits the role: that of a woman who makes Janice from Friends seem like a keeper, and yet who still deserves better than to end up in the middle of one of cinema's worst and clumsiest break-ups ("Would you like whipped cream with that?"). A less showy, more observational director than her contemporary Woody Allen, May roots her laughs in personality and place, pulling off a lovely contrast between torrid Miami and the chilly Minnesotan wilderness to which a contrite Grodin exiles himself. Unlike the remake, nothing appears forced: its lightness of touch is just so, as is its wry acknowledgement of one key universal truth - that some people can never be happy.

The Heartbreak Kid is currently unavailable on any format.

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