The Heartbreak Kid

(Elaine May, USA, 1972)


Elaine May is the most underrated director in American cinema. The Heartbreak Kid is the closest she has yet come to mainstream success, but it stays true to her corrosive, uncompromising vision.

While remaining essentially faithful to Neil Simon’s script (with its echoes of The Graduate, 1967), May manages to slaughter the sentimental, feel-good aura of that writer’s baleful contribution to popular movies. It does so by emphasising, as all her films do, the unpalatable facts of human cruelty, humiliation and embarrassment.

Black comedy here wears a mundane face. Lenny (Charles Grodin in his best role), a gormless salesman, is on his honeymoon to the nightmarish but good-hearted Lila (Jeannie Berlin – has ever a mother directed her daughter in such a brave, extreme part?).

Feeling trapped and suffocated, Lenny’s rather shallow fantasies instantly turn to the all-American ideal, perky Kelly (Cybill Shepherd). Every consequence of this triangle is a disaster.

Few films plunge us so mercilessly into the tawdriness of romantic and sexual dreams. May’s focus on this material is pure John Cassavetes: an unflinching documentation of discomfort, real pain played out in real time. Our laughter – so brilliantly elicited by May’s deliberately fractured mise en scène – becomes hysterical (in the psychoanalytic sense), a way of momentarily fleeing horror.

There can be no underestimating May’s skill in directing comedy: she is a master.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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