Elaine May Pauline Kael - Essay

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 572 words.)