Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)


In the opening minutes of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, Charles Grodin’s Lenny and Jeannie Berlin’s Lila meet, court, get married, and set off to drive from New York to Florida on their honeymoon; by the time they reach their destination he’s already tired of her, and a few days later has resolved to get out of the marriage, his mind now set on being with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), there on vacation from Minnesota with her parents. It’s all as funny as anyone could wish for, with uniformly spot-on performances, the actors seeming perfectly in sync with May’s exactingly deadpan style. The underlying dynamics are satisfyingly hard to pin down: a summary of the trajectory may make it sound like a triumph of the male go-getter, the replacement female object of desire merely submitting to inevitability, but Shepherd’s sustained sense of amused knowingness (and the fact of Kelly being the initial pursuer, appearing to Lenny on the beach as if torn from the sun) complicates that reading. As does the ending, at Lenny’s second wedding celebration, his goal achieved, but with little apparent exultation, Kelly waiting on the side as he immerses himself into conversations about business and opportunity (he grandiosely claims to want to do something that involves giving back to the land, as opposed to his current role in selling sports equipment, but this objective seems capable of being easily jettisoned). The film certainly represents a kind of triumph for WASP capitalism – his second wedding is a much more conventionally lavish affair than his first; Kelly’s well-to-do family embodies a certain kind of aspirational living – but at the possible cost of losing his soul (as annoying as Lila may be to him, his interactions with her are real and textured where those with Kelly are sculptured and artificial). The resonances are terrific, and yet The Heartbreak Kid may be the most relatively straightforward of May’s four films, which is really saying something about the other three.

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