Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

Elaine May has the rarest kind of comic gift: the ability to create a world seen comically. Her satirist's malice isn't cutting; something in the befuddled atmosphere she creates keeps it mild—yet mild in a thoroughly demented way, mild as if impervious to sanity. It may be a trait of some witty women to be apologetic about the cruelty that is inherent in their wit; Miss May, all apologies, has a knack for defusing the pain without killing the joke. The dialogue sounds natural and unforced. The humor sneaks up on you, and it's surprisingly evenhanded and democratic; everybody in [The Heartbreak Kid] is a little cockeyed….

Elaine May's tone often verges on the poignant (and is best when it does), but there are unkillable demons in her characters, and you never know what you'll discover next. Working almost entirely through the actors, she lets those demons come to the surface in a scene before she moves on. The characters don't seem to be middle-class survivors (though they are)—they seem to be crazy people in leaking boats, like other people. She supplies a precarious element of innocence that removes them from [the pandering, hardcore humor of the screenwriter, Neil Simon]. (p. 69)

Elaine May keeps the best of Neil Simon but takes the laugh-and-accept-your-coarseness out of it. She reveals without complacency, and so the congratulatory slickness of Neil Simon is gone. Lila and Lenny and Kelly have inadequate dreams; they're on their way to missing out because of these tinkly little dreams. In this sense, they're younger editions of the middle-aged failures Simon has been writing about in his latest plays…. The Heartbreak Kid is anarchically skeptical about the ways in which people bamboozle themselves; it gets at the unexpected perversity in that self-love. (p. 70)

However, the only actual flaw is that the picture just sort of expires, with an undersized "thought-provoking" ending when we're expecting something outrageous that would clarify the hero's new quandary…. [But] Elaine May's work has a note of uncertainty about people and their fates—things may change at any minute, you feel—and so an ambiguous ending isn't jarring, just a little disappointing….

I guess what I like best about [The Heartbreak Kid] is that although Miss May's touch is very sure (and although the picture is, technically, in a different league from her wobbly first movie, A New Leaf; I mean it isn't shot in murkocolor, and the framing of the action—the whole look of it—is professional), sureness in her doesn't mean that mechanical, overemphatic style which is the bane of recent American comedy and is Broadway's worst legacy to the movies. That crackling, whacking style is always telling you that things are funnier than you see them to be. Elaine May underplays her hand. The element of uncertainty that results in a shambles when she isn't on top of the situation as a director can, as in this case, where she's functioning well, result in a special, distracted comic tone, which implies that you can't always tell what's funny. It is uncertainty as a comic attitude—a punchiness that comes from seeing life as a series of booby traps. (p. 71)

Pauline Kael, "New Thresholds, New Anatomies" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVIII, No. 43, December 16, 1972), in her Reeling (copyright © 1972 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 68-74.∗

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