Still Heartbroken After All These Years

The Heartbreak Kid as Elaine May’s Master Class

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) | poster art by Tony Stella
poster by Tony Stella

Never has there been a simpler and more captivating comic premise: On the first day of his honeymoon, Lenny Cantrow falls in love with another girl.

It’s the sort of hook that instantly spins out in your head, generating riotous possibilities you can’t wait to see explored and fulfilled. If you’ve never heard of 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, you probably want to log off right now and just go watch the damn thing yourself—in which case, unless you’re willing to hunt down the long out-of-print DVD, your best bet would likely be the copy uploaded to YouTube by some digital Robin Hood. But that’s easy enough, so go ahead, we’ll wait. It’ll be time well spent. You’ll never see a more captivating demonstration of how a comedy auteur can make their directorial voice heard within the confines of a work-for-hire project.

The roots of The Heartbreak Kid can be found in the January 1, 1966 issue of Esquire, which featured a new short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. Entitled “A Change of Plan,” the story of Cantrow’s (no first name attached to that surname by Friedman) failed honeymoon is a breathless yarn running less than 3,000 words but managing to include the full framework for what would become The Heartbreak Kid: Cantrow impulsively marries his longtime girlfriend, but en route to the honeymoon, he finds himself suddenly bothered by her minor idiosyncrasies. Upon arrival at the hotel, Cantrow becomes enamored of a young woman vacationing with her family, and immediately gives himself over to this infatuation, declaring his intentions first to the girl’s father, then to his own new bride (to whom no name is afforded by Friedman). After a quickie divorce, he heads off to the Midwest to win over the new object of his affection (referred to in dialogue twice as Sue Ellen, but simply as “the girl” in narration), finally wearing her down only to experience a new bout of cold feet at his second wedding reception.

Neil Simon makes few structural changes to Friedman’s outline in his script for the screen adaptation, now retitled The Heartbreak Kid. In substance, however, Simon makes the story so much his own that he fought to retain sole writing credit (a request, Friedman has since claimed, to which he had no objection, with his agent forced to persuade him to feign aggrievement in order to leverage a greater buyout). Simon, fresh off the back-to-back releases of two collaborations with director Arthur Hiller—1970’s The Out of Towners, and 1971’s Plaza Suite, the former an original screenplay and the latter an adaptation of his own 1968 play—heightens the tone of Friedman’s story with a host of typical 1970s comedy-of-manners contrivances. Where Friedman’s Cantrow pursues his illicit crush while his wife is distracted or indisposed, Simon’s Cantrow (now granted the first name Lenny) is free to pursue his own obsession after his wife (here dubbed Lila) is bedridden by a catastrophic sunburn. Where Friedman’s Cantrow excuses his absence with a story about meeting an old friend for a drink, Simon’s escalates his alibi into an increasingly unsustainable farce involving highway catastrophes and legal entanglements.

Friedman’s story fits comfortably into a subgenre of mid-century short fiction now referred to as “the New Yorker story,” works by the ilk of Cheever and Updike that Jonathan Franzen in 2015 characterized as suggesting “feeling without the naming of it” with “well-educated white characters who [can] be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery.” Remarkably, in a story that can be comfortably read in about five minutes, Friedman manages to touch on each of these hallmarks—albeit with a hint of wryness.

 The screenplay eschews much of this melancholy in favor of a distinctly Simonesque cavalcade of gaffes, quips, and barbs; it’s not hard to imagine putting the script up on a Broadway stage, with lines like, “I don’t hand out my daughter to newlyweds!” bellowed at the cheap seats to thunderous laughter. No, it’s not hard at all to imagine a perfectly fine, perfectly serviceable Heartbreak Kid, perhaps one directed by Arthur Hiller with all the rapid-fire line readings and indifferent camerawork of The Out of Towners.

But Elaine May does not make movies like The Out of Towners. And the proximity of this earlier Simon script is auspicious, because it provides an ideal point of comparison in a case study of one of the persistently mind-bending questions in moviegoing: what does good directing look like?

“The big nut to crack,” Richard Linklater told Buzzfeed in 2013, is “the right way to tell a particular story,” how to create that ineffable feeling of a confident artist in control of their craft. But to make all the nitty-gritty decisions (and, as Francis Ford Coppola said in a 2011 interview, “what a director really does is make decisions all day long”) that add up to this ineffability requires persistent vision and effective communication, all of it in service of creating a space for actors to do the work the story requires. And it’s in this element, the realm of performance, that a director’s voice most clearly comes into focus. Technical departments have their own hierarchies, but when it comes to performance, the line of communication tends to be limited to the space between director and actor—in a 1969 interview, Stanley Kubrick defined direction as the ability to identify the emotional statement the character needs to convey, and then to “exercise taste and judgment in helping the actor give [their] best possible performance.”

And so The Out of Towners serves as an ideal comparison point to suss out the directorial voice in The Heartbreak Kid—if we can rule out the common variables of screenwriter (one with a voice so distinct and notable that Pauline Kael compared him in her review of The Heartbreak Kid to vaudevillian jokesmiths) and rough plot shape (a couple embarks on a comic odyssey), all we have left are the spaces in which Elaine May sets herself apart. 

Both The Out of Towners (credited in the opening titles as “A Neil Simon Story” with Hiller’s name reserved for the traditional final card) and The Heartbreak Kid (credited, in no insignificant gesture, as “Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid, an Elaine May Film”) begin with couples in cars—the former en route to the airport for a business trip, the latter embarking on a honeymoon road trip. Where Hiller shoots Simon’s dialogue in a shot/reverse shot pattern that eliminates any possible dead air between lines—lines the performers spit back and forth in a stagey rat-a-tat rhythm that leaves no space to listen or process—May shoots Lenny and Lila’s journey in a series of long two-shots as they sing, laugh, sigh, and pause, Charles Grodin making impulsive choices in embodying Lenny—clearing his throat, unexpectedly bellowing—that are unimaginable in a Simon script (in which, as noted by Kael, performance tends be secondary to the assurance that the “snappers…come on schedule”). 

Throughout, Hiller stages his film with all the ruthless jauntiness of a network sitcom (perhaps one like ABC’s The Odd Couple, the prime time Simon adaptation airing concurrently to both Hiller’s and May’s films), assuring the audience that the laughs will be telegraphed, and there will never be any danger of stumbling into provocative emotional ambiguity. May, meanwhile, suffuses her scenes with silences—languid ones with no comic stopwatch running—and she seems just as amused by the sound of Lenny and Lila cracking and popping their gum as she is by Simon’s witticisms. When Lila asks Lenny, “Do you love me?” Grodin is allowed the space to process and then respond with a romantic torpor. Never is there a hint of a director snapping for actors to pick up cues, just a shocking verisimilitude that creates an effect of eavesdropping, one alien to the vast majority of conventional comedy.

This observational style is the dominant note in May’s approach to The Heartbreak Kid. Rather than centralizing the characters’ experience of the story, she prizes the audience’s subjective experience of the characters—when Lenny and Lila share their first dance, they’re shot from across the room, leaving their conversation inaudible. The choice mimics the true experience of observing a couple at their wedding reception, but in a world where microphones allow characters to be audible even at great distance, May’s choice appears stylish and bold. Later scenes of Lenny’s histrionics are presented with none of the buoyant score that Hiller employs to remind the audience they’re watching a comedy, and so the squabbles read more as true domestic anguish that just happens to have the shape and framework of a Neil Simon scene.

Throughout the film, May whenever possible makes the choice diametrically opposed to conventional comedic wisdom—as Lenny builds an untenable tower of lies, he spends so much time pausing and gauging Lila’s responses that any sense of traditional escalation is impossible. And when he meets the new object of his affection, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd in only her second onscreen role, a year after The Last Picture Show), at the hotel bar to confess his marriage and explain his exit strategy, he performs the speech in a strained and anxious hush that runs counter to the operatic angst implied by his dialogue (“I had my doubts in Virginia, I was pretty sure in Georgia, but you have really settled things for me in Florida.”)

Where Neil Simon writes dialogue meant to induce gut-level laughs, May sabotages that effect to create a film that’s less hilarious than amusing—these are scenes calibrated not to leave the audience gasping and howling but rather bemusedly contemplating a terrifically unusual situation. The story’s central showstopping set piece—Lenny breaks up with Lila over a lobster dinner, with her threatening to vomit on the table and then breaking down in sobs on his chest as the waiter badgers Lenny about his pecan pie order—is played for agony that’s as much genuine as farcical. May foregrounds the clanging of other diners’ silverware to subtly stress the discomfort of the public setting, and when Lenny shouts in desperation, the other patrons to whom May cuts don’t provide heightened comic spit-takes but rather the flat nonplussed glances of true distracted diners. Aesthetically, this ostensibly mainstream comedy is far less concerned with evoking its crowd-pleasing peers than with hearkening back to the grungy naturalism Barbara Loden infused into Wanda two years earlier and presaging the underplayed spontaneity John Cassavetes would employ in another two years for A Woman Under the Influence, both auteurist passion projects produced far outside the Hollywood system.

In a 2005 appearance at the Key West Literary Seminar, Bruce Jay Friedman discussed Simon’s later attempts to adapt The Heartbreak Kid as a stage musical, mentioning that the project was scrapped when Simon found himself unable to conceive of Lila’s perspective. Simon, at least according to Friedman, rejected songs by such venerable artists as Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) and Dorothy Fields (Sweet Charity) before deciding it was simply impossible to open up Lila’s interior world.

Simon’s difficulty with Lila’s characterization would be no passing thing—as Charles Grodin alleges in his 1989 memoir, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, Simon vigorously objected to May’s choice of Jeannie Berlin to portray Lila, frustrated that she (in his view) lacked sex appeal. It’s alarming that Simon would believe eroticism was key to Lila’s portrayal while ignoring the nuance of performance that would go on to earn Berlin an Oscar nomination—though the picture Grodin paints of Simon does tilt towards the oblivious, as the esteemed writer was apparently unaware that the actress he was denigrating happened to be May’s daughter. 

Much has been made of May’s choice to cast her own child in such a theoretically unbearable role, but rather than revel in her supposed insufferability, May and Berlin lend Lila a sense of deep grace and integrity. As Lenny’s affection begins to sour within hours of their wedding vows, Lila’s refrain becomes, “I married a grouch.” It’s a line that could be played as a fiendish cackle or a repulsive moan, but Berlin performs these four small words with a focus on her own inner disappointment. And while Lenny may be dismayed that his wife refers to urinating as “going pee-pee,” the infantile beat isn’t highlighted and underlined as so many directors might. Instead, May and Berlin choose to essentially throw the line away, with Lila muttering it over her shoulder at the end of a long post-coital grousing session by Lenny. Alongside this story of a panicked man trying to escape his new marriage, another story runs just below the surface in which a gentle woman who’s just trying to live life as she pleases must slowly come to grips with the fact that the man to whom she’s promised everlasting love may well not be worth it. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, this underplaying of Lila’s awfulness is necessary for the story to work. Were the character presented as outrageously unbearable, Lenny’s attitude would become arguably defensible—if any one of us would want to get away from her at all costs, we couldn’t fault him for doing the same. By allowing Lila to stay grounded as a recognizable and sympathetic presence who’s just slightly tough to take, May makes Lenny’s own awfulness so transparent that he has no choice but to recognize it himself, an effect that paradoxically humanizes him even while heightening his cruelty. 

It is essential to the story’s function that Lenny be aware of his own selfishness, an effect that’s achieved less through Simon’s blunt force script, which serves Grodin dialogue that’s often overpoweringly toxic, and more in the moments of nonverbal self-loathing that the performance makes space for among the jabs. When Lenny, having pursued Kelly as far as the quad of her Midwestern college, ambushes the incredulous young woman and harangues her for (in his perception) leading him on, he snaps “I just gave half my life away!” and then immediately hunches, hanging his head for a moment of private guilt and despair before launching another offensive. These small gestures conjured by Grodin and May serve as evidence of a man at the mercy of his own worst impulses but possessed of just enough perspective to recognize the indefensibility of his behavior, a sort of real-time reappraisal of a character written by Simon (and Friedman before him) to be a two-dimensional cad.  

The unusual balance struck by Elaine May’s direction is cast in stark relief by one of the most unfortunate studies in contrast ever conceived by Hollywood: the 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. It would be nice to sidestep the film’s existence altogether (as the general culture has chosen to do in the last decade) but the Farrellys’ innumerable errors in judgment do serve as cracked proof of Elaine May’s sterling instincts.

Chief among the storytelling missteps committed by the brothers Farrelly (a list including violations of good taste that are appalling even for these well-known scatological provocateurs), their vision of the Cantrows’ dynamic eschews uncomfortable ambiguity as much as possible. The 21st century vision of Lila (Malin Akerman) is a cartoonishly unbearable creature whose “quirks” include an inability to understand basic arithmetic, a cocaine-ravaged septum that provides opportunities for several revolting sight gags, and an unnervingly ravenous sexual appetite (the fact that a woman’s sexual agency is coded as horrifying is, somehow, one of the subtler misogynist dog whistles in this film).

Meanwhile, Lila’s groom (here renamed Eddie and portrayed by Ben Stiller) is left in the morally unambiguous position of a victim trapped in a domestic prison. By rendering Eddie’s situation as objectively desperate, however, the Farrellys remove the onus of empathy. If his guilt is alleviated, then all we have left is his selfishness, and while the manic desperation of the Cantrovian archetype may sound like a foolproof comic condition, the character becomes toxic to the point of intolerability when he’s granted permission to unrepentantly loathe his wife, an issue only further complicated by the active romantic interest demonstrated by the Farrellys’ replacement for Kelly (dubbed Miranda and played by Michelle Monaghan, a decade younger than Stiller but coming across as far more ideal a match by virtue of being in her early 30s to Stiller’s early 40s, rather than Shepherd’s early 20s to Grodin’s late 30s), which shifts the scales to a far less provocative equal footing.

May’s clear-eyed and even-handed compassion, so anathema to the remake’s governing virulence, is among her greatest assets as a director. Across her first two films, both demented romances, May explores the question of how an incredibly selfish man might sublimate his own demons in search of some kind of domestic stability. While her 1971 debut, A New Leaf, forgoes the grounded humanism of The Heartbreak Kid in favor of stylized farce—the plot concerns a destitute playboy’s attempts to murder the heiress he’s tricked into marriage—the central dilemmas of both films invite the audience to ponder how much irritation might be bearable in a relationship. When Henry, Walter Matthau’s A New Leaf protagonist, is alarmed by his new bride’s preferred cocktail of “extra-heavy Malaga wine with soda water and lime juice,” it’s easy to hear an echo of Lenny’s frustration over Lila’s fondness for a post-coital candy bar, and both Grodin and Matthau share an ability to spin full characters out of a strained smile that sits uneasily beneath eyes filled with desperate anxiety.

Distilled down to its most basic core, virtually any story can be seen as an examination of what happiness looks like and how we might achieve it. Elaine May’s mischievous urge as a storyteller is to place this dilemma on the shoulders of the least relatable men and then invite  the audience to relate simply by virtue of their status as protagonist, to measure their minor irritations against those we’ve sublimated in our own lives and consider how much—or how little—the scales would need to be pushed in order for us to make similarly appalling choices.

It’s an uncomfortable question to contemplate, but the audience’s comfort has never been chief among Elaine May’s concerns. If a Neil Simon film is meant to slide down pleasantly, an Elaine May film is meant to stick in the throat, possibly for days. And this is the anxious tension that provides The Heartbreak Kid’s narrative engine—as the opening title card makes so clear, this is Neil Simon’s story, but it is an Elaine May film. In his memoir, Grodin notes that Simon was the rare screenwriter whose level of notoriety allowed him to contractually demand absolute fidelity to his words. Yet even in her second feature, and sole work-for-hire job, Elaine May was not the type to simply deliver someone else’s product, and so when Simon was unable to convince May to cast off her taste for genuine and unrepeatable moments (as Grodin goes on to detail, Simon was appalled to find May directing her actors to sing in the car when he hadn’t written singing into the script), they struck an uneasy deal: each scene would be filmed twice, once with full deference to the script and once with the space for discovery. It wasn’t long, however, before Simon gave up and left The Heartbreak Kid in Elaine May’s hands. In Simon’s own memoirs, neither May nor the film merit more than a passing mention. 

Grodin, however, dedicates quite a lot of room to praising Elaine May’s skills and judgment, as well as noting the film’s immense success with critics (including those, like Kael, who had little patience for most of Simon’s work) and awards bodies (the film was nominated for two Oscars and three Golden Globes). And while the notoriously press-shy May has not frequently commented upon it, the film marked a clear turning point in her unfortunately scant filmography. Her focus on naturalism, one that puts her in league with microbudget pioneer John Cassavetes, would go on to flourish in her next feature, Mikey & Nicky, a collaboration with Cassavetes that, while nominally a comedy, feels so observational it may as well be a documentary. 

While never again working for hire may have removed her obligation to play well with others, it’s a pity that no other writer’s story was (as yet) turned into an Elaine May film. From the current vantage of an entertainment climate increasingly defined by safe bets and risk aversion—a landscape where the mid-budget mainstream comedy teeters on the brink of extinction at the hand of mega-budget franchises—any film that managed to slip through the studio gates with this much originality of voice and tone is an object to be treasured. And Elaine May, possessed of one of the most uniquely daring directorial voices to ever pull off such a creative heist, is an artist deserving of admiration. It’s as simple as that.