William S. Pechter

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

For a considerable portion of its length, The Heartbreak Kid seems merely to be another mining of [the] lode of Jewish self-hatred. On brief acquaintance, Lenny Cantrow marries Lila Kolodny, and, almost as soon as she's been sexually demystified (she'd been making Lenny wait until the honeymoon), she is revealed to him as the proto-Jewish mother in all her gross vulgarity. Loud and inescapable, virtuoso of nonstop talking and eating undeterred even by sex …, her character, whatever one may think of the creation, is a creation. And anything the actress … fails to suggest of the character's insistently smothering presence, the film fills in by its sense of her encroachment on its space, from the narrow squeeze down the aisle at the opening wedding through her crowding in the car on the honeymoon trip to the hotel room where, laid up by a sunburn, she waits to pounce on Lenny each time he enters. Yet even as one admires the deftness with which all this is done, one is repelled by its cruelty;… [the] character seems drawn for no other purpose than to humiliate her, and, unappealing as the character may be, the film's treatment of her seems less appealing still….

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[For] a while, it looks like the film, after spending its first half humiliating Lila, will spend its second humiliating Lenny, a CCNY shmuck vainly aspiring to conquer [Kelly,] an all-American campus queen.

Up until the point in the film at which Lila is dumped, The Heartbreak Kid seemed … neither particularly distinguished nor particularly likable; what one sees in it soon after, however, is something I tend, given the formula-ridden character of most movies, to value highly: the capacity of a film to shift gears, and surprise us. For just as one fears that Lenny is going to have his head handed to him by one of the bull-necked jocks by whom Kelly is constantly surrounded, the worm turns with Bilko-like aplomb, and the film itself suddenly changes direction. And one sees that Lenny's talents as a manic liar, revealed earlier when he invents excuses to leave Lila alone in their hotel room, are born not merely of nervousness but of nerve, and bespeak real resources of daring and cunning.

From then on, the film becomes a much funnier one…. (p. 83)

The emptiness one feels at the end of The Heartbreak Kid seems to come not from the milieu, but rather from within Lenny himself, the gifted hustler suddenly revealed to be operating on nothing but hustle. At the end, Lenny, having gone through everyone else at the wedding reception, sits with a group of restless children, and incongruously hustles them with his standard line of patter; when Lenny asks their age, one of them says he is ten years old, and, a vacant look passing over his face. Lenny muses, "I was ten."… [One is left with] Lenny's incredulous contemplation of the distance he has traveled from being ten to being at that moment there, a journey on which he's shed all baggage…. This is a film in which, for all that one feels it couldn't be other than by and about Jews, the word "Jew" is not, to my recollection, spoken once; even Kelly's father's obdurate resistance to Lenny as a prospective son-in-law seems curiously without discernible anti-Semitic content. Yet though there is no sense that Kelly's Waspishness is in itself what Lenny desires in her, there is little doubt it is the condition which makes possible those qualities in her he finds desirable; she is, as even the best of all possible Lilas could never be, the all-American dream girl. It would be horrible to think of Lila as the sole content of Lenny's cultural heritage, the residue of his tradition; and yet the hollow sensation one is left with at the end feels like just that. It feels like deracination. (p. 84)

William S. Pechter, "A Mother's Vengeance," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 55, No. 5, May, 1973, pp. 81-4.∗

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