The 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid has the simplest of simple plots: a young man (Charles Grodin) marries and finds out one day into his honeymoon that he doesn’t care for his wife (Jeannie Berlin). When they arrive in Miami, he meets a gorgeous young woman (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach and immediately falls in love. He ditches his new wife and upends his life to pursue his even newer love.
The film is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman called “A Change of Plans.” Neil Simon wrote the screenplay and the movie was directed by Elaine May.
The plot may be simple, but there is a great deal of sharp observation about identity, desire, and expectations. Lenny Cantrow marries nice Jewish girl Lila in a simple Jewish ceremony in a New York City apartment. Lila is such a nice girl she forgoes sex until her wedding night. On the car trip to Miami for their honeymoon, Lenny is quickly disenchanted by Lila’s habits (messy eating, announcing when she’s going to the bathroom), as well as her neediness (insisting he declare the sex is wonderful in the middle of the act), and her constant reminding him that they will be together for the next forty to fifty years.
When they arrive in Miami, Lila’s overlong primping at the vanity table gives Lenny an opportunity to go to beach by himself. There he is confronted by a blond enchantress named Kelly, who berates him for taking her spot on the beach. Lila’s fortuitous severe sunburn (with the aid of some over-the-top and absurd lies) allows Lenny to abandon her in the hotel room while he pursues Kelly.
Lenny is so certain Kelly is his real true love that he dumps the devastated Lila in a restaurant on the last night of their honeymoon. He then follows Kelly to Minnesota to convince not only her, but her conservative father (Eddie Albert) that he is the right man for her.
The story is the fantasy of the “shiksa” (gentile) goddess for Jewish men. The film has been criticized somewhat for the way Lila is portrayed, but I think the key to understanding the story is how both women are seen through the lens of Lenny’s gaze. Lenny and Lila dated, so of course he knew beforehand about her habits. While pursuing her, they simply did not register. It’s a huge credit to Berlin (who, by the way, is Elaine May’s real-life daughter) that Lila comes off as so sympathetic when Lenny cruelly divests himself of her in a public place. He even refuses to let her leave the table to throw up in the bathroom because he’s so busy telling her why this is the best thing that could happen to her.
While Kelly could be seen as a heartless homewrecker, she is not serious about Lenny at first. When he comes to Minnesota, he is very stalkerish, insisting that Kelly now has to be with him, when she is merely having fun dating several men because she is young and the possibilities of her life are still endless. As with Lila’s annoying habits, none of this registers with Lenny.
Lenny’s campaign to win her and her family over is both hilarious and rather horrifying. He gives pretentious speeches at the dinner table about the “honesty” of the plain food Kelly’s father prefers, even to the point of praising “the integrity of the cauliflower.”
He impresses Kelly’s mother (Audra Lindley) but her father sees through his nonsense immediately. He tries to buy Lenny off, but Lenny somehow (we never see exactly how) wins her father over, too, leading to a wedding in a church. Lenny keeps spouting his fake pronouncements to wedding guests as a way to fit into his new world. He looks as unhappy as he did during his honeymoon with Lila.
Simon and May accomplish what seems impossible: taking a cringe-inducing situation and making comedy gold out of it. The way they do this is by careful character observations. Lenny is a real type (I knew of a very similar situation through a friend of my mother’s whose daughter was treated the same way as Lila). Lila and Kelly are real types, too, but they also come across as real people, something that escapes Lenny’s notice completely.
The Heartbreak Kid is hard to find (the DVD is out of print). It occasionally plays on TCM. It’s a worthy companion piece to The Graduate (which, ironically, was directed by May’s erstwhile comedic partner Mike Nichols) and definitely worth seeking out if you want a complete viewing of Neil Simon’s movie work.