An Elaine May movie is a treasure in no small part because she has made so few. Among them is the 1972 film “The Heartbreak Kid,” a family affair with Elaine May directing her daughter, Jeannie Berlin. The film’s script, by Neil Simon, is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman who is best known for his 1960s offbeat and Off Off Broadway plays. When it comes to “The Heartbreak Kid,” few films plunge so mercilessly into the tawdriness of romantic and sexual dreaming and May emphasizes the story’s depiction of humiliation and embarrassment, all to comic effect.
The film stars Charles Grodin (in a part that is the genesis of many of his later roles) as Lenny, a groom on his honeymoon. Berlin is wonderful as Lila, his hapless wife. She has enough acting confidence to be able to go too far and still make us believe in her character, and May gives her full rein.
But this is the original honeymoon-from-hell and Lenny is easily distracted by the lovely Kelly, played by Cybill Shepherd, who is, in many ways, the most interesting character in the film. She is so unapproachably beautiful that all she can do with men is tease and taunt them — they’re too hypnotized to treat her as if she were actually alive and accessible. Lenny is relentless but his fantasy of a future with Kelly runs aground thanks to her sternly disapproving father, played by Eddie Albert.
Berlin and Albert were nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress Academy Awards for “The Heartbreak Kid.” Both also received nominations for their performances in the film by the National Society of Film Critics, and Albert won. Grodin, Berlin and Simon were nominated for Golden Globe Awards by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Rounding out the cast of well-known actors is the always wonderful Doris Roberts. “The Heartbreak Kid” was well received by the critics. The New York Times called it “a first class American comedy.” Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s a comedy but there’s more in it than that; it’s a movie about the ways we pursue, possess, and consume each other as sad commodities.”
And that takes us back to its source — Bruce Jay Friedman and the label “black comedy.”
So join us for “The Heartbreak Kid” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12 in the library’s Gill Patterson Community Room. Laughter is always better in a crowd.