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The Kid Is Back in Town

The remake of The Heartbreak Kid favors bawdiness over sharp-edged satire

Lawrence Levi
October 03, 2007

In the 1972 hit The Heartbreak Kid, screenwriter Neil Simon took the ethnic and class differences hinted at in Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan” and made them explicit. New Yorker Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a sporting-goods salesman, marries Lila (Jeannie Berlin) in a ceremony where a wineglass gets crushed and “(They Long to Be) Close to You” segues into “Hava Nagila.” Lila has a Noo Yawk accent, dark hair, and a certain voluptuousness; the critic Pauline Kael described her as “a middle-class Jewish peasant, her ripe lusciousness a cartoon of sensuality.” (That Berlin is the daughter of the film’s director, Elaine May, suggests the caricature was affectionate.) Down in Miami on his honeymoon, Lenny meets Kelly, a fair-haired, blue-eyed dream girl (played with haughty refinement by Cybill Shepherd), who appears before him on a beach in a halo of sunlight. Lenny soon disposes of his bride and shows up, post-divorce, at Kelly’s Minnesota college; she’s surrounded by hulking football players who fit into Friedman’s genus of “strange blond people with great Scandinavian profiles.” Her dad (a Brylcreemed Eddie Albert) calls Lenny a “New York wiseguy” and tries to buy him off, but soon caves in and lets him marry her. In a church.

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby called The Heartbreak Kid “a first-class American comedy, as startling in its way as was The Graduate.” He also noted that it “begins as a rather familiar New York Jewish comedy,” which tells you something about Hollywood movies of that era. It was a time when Woody Allen’s filmmaking career was taking off (thanks mostly to Canby, Allen’s most prominent cheerleader), Simon’s plays (such as The Odd Couple) were being made into hit movies, and obviously ethnic actors like Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman, and George Segal were getting cast in lead roles in M*A*S*H, Midnight Cowboy, and The Owl and the Pussycat.

In Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s remake of The Heartbreak Kid, opening Friday, the only Jewish thing about Cantrow—now a San Franciscan named Eddie—is the person playing him: Ben Stiller, whom the critic David Denby once called “the latest, and crudest, version of the urban Jewish male on the make.” The Farrelly brothers—known for There’s Something About Mary (which also starred Stiller) and other comedies combining outrageous vulgarity with winning sentimentality—upend the original’s assimilationist theme, making Lila

(Malin Ackerman), Eddie’s bride, the seemingly perfect blond goddess. On his honeymoon in Mexico the dream girl Eddie meets is Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a witty, down-to-earth brunette from Mississippi. Yet there’s nothing “Southern” about her; as Eddie points out, she doesn’t even have an accent. The Farrellys are notorious for exploiting and then subverting all kinds of stereotypes—fat people, disabled people, the mentally ill, the Amish—and here the targets are gays, Mexicans, and accented Southerners. (Eddie refers to Miranda’s extended family as “good rednecks, like Jimmy Carter.”) But they leave the Jews alone. While the plot takes Eddie into completely new places (including a bizarre illegal-immigrant third-act interlude), the new ending—a dark punch line—is actually truer to the spirit of Friedman’s story.

The first movie was a sharp-edged satire in which Cantrow had to face the melancholy consequences of attaining his shiksa trophy; the new one is a raunchy romp that mocks the fantasy of true love even as it hinges on it. Once you’ve added a sex-crazed bride and a poisonous jellyfish whose sting requires urine as an antidote, who needs subtext?