Wedding bell blues

To fully appreciate what a watershed period the 1970s were for American cinema, you need to look beyond the obvious classics (Taxi Driver, The Godfather) to the films on the margins. At a time when moral ambiguities and political provocations were fair game, even transparently light romantic comedies and chest-thumping action films were capable of taking strange, uncomfortable turns.

Elaine May’s 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid was one of those films on the margins. May, like her former comedy partner Mike Nichols, was a showbiz pro, not a revolutionary artiste, but, obviously emboldened by the spirit of the time, she took Neil Simon’s most cynical screenplay and made an observant film that had more in common with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint than Simon’s Barefoot in the Park.

The story of Lenny Cantrow, a New York sporting-goods salesman who meets an alluring young woman while on his honeymoon and impulsively decides to dump his wife, The Heartbreak Kid dared to build its comic premise around a brazenly creepy protagonist. As played by a then-unknown Charles Grodin, Lenny is a smarmy social climber with more than a touch of Jewish self-loathing. His bride, Lila, played by Jeannie Brolin, is loyal and eager to please, but she can’t compete with Kelly, the flirty, blonde, shiksa fantasy figure Lenny meets on the beach, played by Cybill Shepherd. Kelly’s a privileged, pampered blank slate, and her erotic appeal to Lenny derives more from what she represents — the unattainable WASP dream — than from her obvious attractiveness.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from Lenny’s desperately obsequious attempts to win entry into her impenetrable world. Invited over for a family dinner, he gushes to Kelly’s mom, “There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in the cauliflower.” Attempting to schmooze one of her dad’s business friends, he sputters, “There’s a lot of money in tear gas.”

No one in May’s Heartbreak Kid emerges unscathed. Lenny dumps Lila over a seafood dinner, and then urges her to finalize the divorce settlement in time for him to check out of his hotel. Kelly knows from the beginning that Lenny is a newlywed, but has no qualms about toying with him. And Lila is well-intentioned but whiny and insecure.

Jewish self-loathing doesn’t play as easily for laughs these days, and it’s an unwritten law that the central characters in any contemporary romantic comedy must be sympathetic — people we can root for without reservation. That helps to explain the vapidity of the new Heartbreak Kid, directed by the Farrelly Brothers and starring Ben Stiller.

The remake follows the broad outline of the original, but you get the feeling that the Farrellys liked what was obvious about the May film (man falls in love on his honeymoon) and had no use for any of its subtleties. In this Heartbreak Kid, Lila (Malin Akerman) is a stealth monster: A blonde bombshell who waits until her Mexican honeymoon to reveal herself as a shrill, flatulent, clueless former coke-head, with mountains of debt and no means of support.

The Farrellys go to amazing lengths to make Lila repugnant (thus justifying her groom’s actions ). In the original Heartbreak Kid, Lila sees a geriatric couple at a diner and gushes to Lenny, “That’s us in 40 or 50 years.” In the new film, Lila sees an old couple and says, “That’s us in 10 years.” Apparently, it’s not enough that she slaps her husband in bed and calls him a “little bitch.” She must also be hopeless at arithmetic.

Stiller’s character, renamed Eddie, is upgraded to the owner of a sporting-goods store, so class envy doesn’t enter into his motivations. He’s a sincere guy who overcomes his natural timidity by impulsively getting married, and quickly regrets it. He leaves Lila not for a rich debutante, but for an earthy Mississippi lacrosse coach, played by Justine Bateman lookalike Michelle Monaghan.

Stiller does hapless emasculation well (does he ever do anything else?), and his timing never fails him, aside from a boorish meltdown scene with some over-eager mariachis.

That scene is just one of many in which Mexicans are caricatured for cheap gags. And the Farrellys’ penchant for crude physical comedy reaches a new low when Lila flashes her vagina on the beach and urinates on Eddie’s back.

If watching septuagenarian Jerry Stiller get some outrageously buxom action in a hot tub and relentlessly prattle on about “crushing some pussy” sends you into hysterics, this will be your rom-com heaven. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.

The original Heartbreak Kid suggested that when you get what you want, it mysteriously loses its allure. The remake’s message, repeatedly expressed by Eddie’s father and best friend, is the slightly more simple-minded “Bitches be crazy!” It’s nice to know that we’ve made so much cultural progress over the last 35 years. •

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