The HEARTBREAK KID
The HEARTBREAK KID
In many respects, Elaine May’s second feature-adapted by Neil Simon from a Bruce Jay Friedman story, with an uncredited polish by her – is a complex response to <![CDATA[<i>]]>The Graduate<![CDATA[</i>]]> (1967), directed by her former partner in improvisational comedy, Mike Nichols. Both movies chart the hero’s ditching of a dark, overpowering woman (Anne Bancroft, Jeannie Berlin) for an inaccessible WASP princess (Katharine Ross, Cybill Shepherd) whom he monomaniacally follows all the way to the university she’s attending.
In contrast to Nichols’ casting of a New York Jewish actor (Dustin Hoffman) as a WASPy Los Angelino, May’s lead was Charles Grodin, originally considered by Nichols for Hoffman’s part, and whereas both movies end with Christian weddings, May’s begins with an explicitly Jewish one. Even the uses of pop songs as anthems of their heroes’ aspirations have ethnic implications: In contrast to the euphoric Jewish assimilation (and mainstreaming of folk music) of Simon and Garfunkel in <![CDATA[<i>]]>The Graduate<![CDATA[</i>]]> – which May is still cracking jokes about in <![CDATA[<i>]]>Ishtar<![CDATA[</i>]]> – <![CDATA[<i>]]>The Heartbreak Kid<![CDATA[</i>]]> offers multiple versions of a pop single associated with the Carpenters’ “Close to You”, and each successive version registers as more bitterly ironic. In short, working with a Neil Simon script that she was bound by contract to follow, May still found numerous ways to “write” between the lines, and what emerged was every bit as personal as her first feature, <![CDATA[<i>]]>A New Leaf<![CDATA[</i>]]> – perhaps even more so because of all the ethnic inflections. Both of these features are striking in the way they set up an uneasy audience identification with a self-absorbed hero bent on ditching his unsuspecting newlywed wife, rubbing our noses in everything about her that he finds disgusting and abhorrent while creating a surprising amount of empathy and compassion for her as well. (In the case of Berlin, May’s daughter, the part was played so effectively that the actress was nominated for an Oscar.)
(adapted from an article on Elaine May published in “Written By”, August 1997)