Molly Haskell

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

Lenny, the hero of The Heartbreak Kid,… seems more the progeny of [Bruce Jay] Friedman, who wrote the story on which the film is based, than of Neil Simon, who wrote the screenplay, or Elaine May, who directed. But May has softened the edges, making Lenny more enchanting than he has any right to be, and brought into dramatic, if not completely resolved, focus, the surrounding characters….

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Elaine May's second feature is a funny and sometimes sidesplitting film whose whole never approaches the success of its best moments in which the two levels of romantic fantasy and satire are reconciled. It falls prey to the kind of tonal inconsistencies, or rather irresolutions, that one might expect from the collective effort of such similar, wittily urbane, but not identical sensibilities as May's, Simon's, and Friedman's.

The first half hour, and weakest section of the film, sets up in derisive, skit-like fashion, the marriage from which Lenny will be at least partially excused from wishing to escape. (p. 171)

The minute Kelly comes into view, or, more properly, eclipses the sun on a deserted Miami beach, the movie picks up—not just because of [her] Amazon beauty and slyly comical self-awareness, but because the WASPs are treated with hardly a trace of the caricature lavished on the Jews. They belong to a fantasy world and the question the film asks, without being able to answer, is, What happens when a fantasy comes true?

It plays on a reversal of the usual expectations: that fantasies don't come true, and that the Jewish hero will slink back, chastened to his ethnic bride. The problem—and this brings us back to the equivocal nature of the hero …—is that the film is predicated on the compelling nature of that fantasy, without any clear understanding of what is behind or ahead of it. He is not the usual intellectual hero or poor boy, driven by social or economic motives to reach beyond himself, and the whole notion of marriage loses its urgency. However else May, Simon, and Friedman may differ, they begin with the common assumption that marriage is ridiculous, an idea that not even society is at great pains to contradict these days. Hence, there is no real reason to make marriage crucial to the narrative except to make satirical points. But the fact is, there is a strong impulse to marry …, and if May and company had approached it with curiosity instead of derision, they might have come away with more satisfying (poetically and logically) reasons for its failure. She came closer to suggesting a feeling of complementary needs among the romantic oldsters of A New Leaf than she does here, where the egotistic male fantasies prevail.

The best scenes seem to bear her mark—scenes which combine satire, deadpan humor, and sheepish vulnerability, often with little or no dialogue, long takes, and three or four people in the frame…. For such touches and minor enchantments The Heartbreak Kid is well worth seeing. (pp. 171-72)

Molly Haskell, "'The Heartbreak Kid'," in her From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (copyright © 1973, 1974 by Molly Haskell; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1974 (and reprinted in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, Grossman Publishers, 1977, pp. 171-72).

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