Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)

Shoot the moon

(Warning: plot, surprise twists, and finale discussed in detail)

Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid (1972), about Jewish up-and-comer Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) and his schemes to put aside newlywed wife Lila Kolodny (Jeannie Berlin, the director's daughter) in favor of WASP coed Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), has been compared to Mike Nichols' classic The Graduate (1967) for obvious reasons: both Nichols and May have been longtime comic collaborators; both their pictures (his first, her second) feature societal outsiders trying to wriggle their way inside; both pictures are comedies, instagram photos of the American milieu they are set in--'60s California, '70s New York and Minnesota (with a brief detour through Miami Beach) respectively. 

They do differ in this one respect: The Graduate touched a public nerve and became a popular hit--has always been available in one format or another (revival houses, cable TV, VHS tape, DVD, Blu-Ray) since. The Heartbreak Kid drew respectful and even enthusiastic notices and was a modest success; it has since dropped out of sight DVDwise (as of this date Amazon lists a 2002 out-of-print DVD at anywhere from $90 to $120).

May keeps her cards close; she doesn't tell us how we should really feel about Lenny. With a Naruselike simplicity (hiding a go-for-the-jugular viciousness) she builds a strong case for Lenny's distaste towards his wife, justifying his actions: the chin smeared with egg salad ("I'm an egg salad nut," she mumbles through her mouthful; "another thing you're going to have to get used to"), the relentless neediness ("Tell me it's wonderful, Lenny!"), the threat to sustain her behavior for a lifetime ("You have to give me about forty to fifty years"). Remarkable how relentless May is in making Lila (her daughter, mind) look and sound and feel repugnant to Lenny during the film's first twenty minutes; some of the funniest shots in the film are of the camera observing Lila in bed, or at the dressing table, either snoring or trying to tame her wildly curling hair, the camera suddenly panning to one side to catch Lenny staring in stunned silence, the idea of what he's just married sinking into his reluctant brain.

But that's Lila through Lenny's eyes, not mine. Where Lenny contemplates a future with a matron tending to fat (in addition to egg salad she munches Milky Way bars in bed) I think of an earthy, sensual woman savoring her snack; where Lenny glares at the mayoed egg on Lila's chin in horror, I thought her stained lips arousing (imagine the two retiring to their motel room, arms piled high with deli products; imagine them naked in bed, schmearing chopped liver into each others' faces, using schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) for lubricant).  
Lila's actually more than just egg salad and candy bars; when she talks to Lenny it's about their future together (that 'forty or fifty years' remark repeated so many times Lenny starts quoting it himself in a different context). She may be needy but that's her fear talking--she needs the support a partner should provide to properly face their years together, and Lenny is not providing. In her own Jewish housewife-y way she's taking the long view, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture; her mind's focused on life with this man, while his mind is focused on the nearest exit. 

When Lenny finally breaks the news to Lila it's over a lobster dinner (cue shot of Lila's teeth, munching on a fistful of lobster legs). Lenny's an unintentional sadist; he has to raise Lila high, the best moment of her honeymoon, before pulling the rug out from under her. Lila's implosion is arguably the only moment where May tips her hand; with a bit of soft-played music, the wonderfully unhinged Berlin suggests Lila's anger and bitter despair--the deteriorating beat of the film's sorely tried heart.
"Kelly said something about uh laying your cards on the table. Were those your cards?"

"No! No--I'm just kinda shuffling..."

The rest of the film plays out less like Neil Simon, more like Moliere (the comedy is already atypical Simon, arising more from character and situation than from quips and barbed insults). Lenny freed of Lila is like Humbert Humbert freed of both Charlotte Haze and Clare Quilty: suddenly all things are permissible, including monomaniacal insanity (Grodin's relentlessly fatuous grin suggests as much). Lenny confronts Kelly's parents: "It's my plan," he informs them pointblank, "to follow you out to Minnesota...and to lay claim to your lovely daughter here. Those are my cards, and uh Mr. Corcoran, there's not a joker in the bunch." Mr. Corcoran (the magnificent Eddie Albert) fumes: "Not if they tied me to a horse and pulled me forty miles by my tongue!" The father is angry, rightfully so, but Lenny isn't flustered; he's armed with the near-invincible certainty that Kelly is what he wants, and he'll do anything to achieve her. 

As for Kelly--Cybill Shepherd is a beauty of course; she doesn't have the expressiveness or warmth of Berlin, nor is it part of her character's concept that she do so. She's flirtatious, manipulative, self-centered--flaws that are part of her charm, the way Berlin's flaws (sensuality, vulgarity) are part of hers. She suggests an erotic game to Lenny, and tellingly it involves zero physical contact (they strip naked, face each other, try approach as close as possible without touching). She's intriguing but ethereal, a weightless bodiless fantasy figure; you can't imagine her suffering from pimples or body odor, much less ripping out a fart (if she has an orgasm all you'd probably hear is a single mousy squeak). Perhaps Kelly's single most grounded moment is when she tells Lenny she never thought he'd follow her so far--it's almost an admission of human fallibility

I mentioned The Graduate; Nichols' picture is stuffed with trick shots (camera follows protagonist into swimming pool; peers out of closet; suspends a running figure in space and time using telephoto lenses) and a Simon 'n Garfunkel score* to add chic style and the illusion of depth to what was by this time a fairly conventional story, of youth breaking out of its conformist cocoon to grow a pair (antecedents off the top of my head: Rebel Without a Cause; The 400 Blows; Breathless). 

*(Nichols used five songs to mostly dramatic effect, May used two: the Carpenters' "Close to You," which at various points suggested 1) Lila's ardor, 2) Lenny's feelings of claustrophobia, and 3) Lenny's obsessive need to claim Kelly; and Coca-Cola's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," with its refrain "It's the real thing!" functioning as a sometimes straightforward, sometimes sarcastic coda to the sincerity of various parties)

The Graduate starts out as (occasionally biting) satire, softens into a conventional romantic comedy; May's film begins where The Graduate leaves off, with an awkward marriage (okay, a union of some kind), then demonstrates what's possible beyond that marriage if you have the chutzpah, the imagination, the necessary ruthlessness (the film traces its lineage back to all those 'disintegrating marriage' movies, from The Awful Truth to The Palm Beach Story--what's new about May's take is the breathless speed with which Lenny moves, and the relentless logic of the film's conclusion). One reason why The Graduate has been so popular all these years could be the facile ease with which it tells its comforting lie, couched in counterculture accoutrements: the rebel, the lover will win in the end (oh, Nichols might extend his final shot for a time to suggest ambiguity, but after all is said and done Benjamin still gets away, and with Elaine in tow). The Heartbreak Kid delivers an altogether different message: we don't love rebels, we don't love lovers, we love winners. We love to cheer for the guy who stands victorious, who delivers the goods, who clutches the medal or trophy in his fist no matter how many bodies lie bleeding to death about him.

The ending emerges organically and inevitably from the plot--another, far happier married couple, of course--but thanks to Grodin's high-tension performance as Lenny and May's precisely machined deadpan tone, the audience feels far from comforted: you think of Humbert Humbert emptying his pistol into Dick Schiller's eye socket then running off with his wife, or (less radically) of Noah Cross's fingers slowly but irrevocably settling over his granddaughter's eyes. You imagine a sympathetic hand settling on your shoulder: "Forget it Jake, it's the Reagan years," your faithful friend whispers, pulling you away. Cue Coca-Cola melody played at full volume, certifying the authenticity of May's prophetic vision. 

First published in Businessworld, 2.5.15

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