“Your eyes are more than enough.” This is what Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) says to Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), the L'Étoile du Nord blonde dreamboat, when he’s trying to make clear his intention to court and consequently marry her. She doesn’t respond one way or another and so Lenny plucks the answer from her eyes. Those eyes, mind you, don’t look any different than any do at any other point during the movie, but that doesn’t really matter. Lenny sees what he needs to see because Lenny wants what he wants in that moment and nothing, dammit, will stop him. It’s sort of like going to a restaurant specifically for the pecan pie, which Lenny does later, only to realize the restaurant is out of pecan pie. Who wants blueberry pie when you were pining for pecan? Go in back and get me some pecan. Do you hear me?! GET ME SOME PECAN PIE!
“The Heartbreak Kid”, which was directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon, was loosely based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel “An American Tragedy” which was also the source material for 1951’s “A Place In the Sun” which was, like, the most tragic movie ever, man. “The Heartbreak Kid” is a comedy, of course, but then tragedy, as the esteemed wiseacre Mel Brooks famously opined, is always comical when it’s happening to someone else. Like Lenny, for instance, who is getting married to Lisa Kolodny (Jeannie Berlin) as “The Heartbreak Kid” begins in a wedding that is hardly built to with a relationship that is hardly defined which suggests that happiness is simply implied upon saying “I do.” If only.
They strike out from New York for a Miami Beach honeymoon, but Lenny already has doubts by Virginia, and full on regret by Georgia. Grodin can play exasperated with the best of them and here, as he sits in motel beds, anxiety enveloping him with every little thing Lisa does, his desperate comicality is pure gold. She keeps wondering why he won’t really talk. “I’m quiet in the mornings,” he explains. What about at night? “I’m quiet in the evenings,” he claims. “I’ve never seen you be so quiet,” she says. And while Lisa’s habits are peculiar, no doubt, they are not the exaggerated obnoxiousness this character was saddled with in the atrocious 2007 remake when she was played by Malin Akerman. In May’s version they become exaggerated in Lenny’s mind, the invisible guillotine of commitment constantly hovering just over head. He’s walking blind, emblemized in the shot in Miami Beach when he leaves the hotel and the serious sunshine is blotted out by his sunglasses.
Not long after, though, he has a revelation, per se, when he’s lounging on the beach and Kelly appears like an angelic specter, dancing in and out of the sunlight directly above him, claiming that he has taken her spot in the sand, establishing herself from the get-go as having the upper hand, which he instantaneously acquiesces, stricken by her you-gotta-be-kidding comeliness, suddenly indifferent to his own spouse who, as luck would have it, fails to apply sun tan lotion and winds up with a legendary sunburn and marooned on the hotel bed in pain and unable to go out, a sitcom contrivance, sure, but screw it, I’m gonna play my Get Out Of Jail Free card. That overcooked tan gives Lenny the opportunity to run off and pursue the Minnesota grown apple of his eye.
Shepherd’s performance is critical. She is only a Jewish American Princess in the eyes of Lenny, and because she knows she’s a Jewish American Princess in the eyes of Lenny she uses his infatuation to have fun, ensnaring this sap in her Shiksa appeal and luring him right into the trap where her humorless father (Eddie Albert) represents the cast iron jaws. This is brought home in the film’s most incredible sequence, a dinner table conversation in which Lenny explains to Mr. and Mrs. Corcoran that he plans to ask Kelly for his hand in marriage despite, like, you know, currently already being married.
May shoots this in a single take, with Lenny and Mr. Corcoran in the foreground while Mrs. Corcoran and Kelly are planted in the background. Lenny’s plea is quietly impassioned and improbably candid, even as he seems to making up his first wife exit strategy on the fly. Mr. Corcoran stews all the while Mrs. Corcoran seems genuinely happy until she realizes this schmuck talking marriage is already hitched at which point her smile dissolves into a frozen “whaaaaaa?” Kelly, meanwhile, is like the peanut gallery, hardly bothered, her eyes gauging her father’s reaction as much as watching Lenny founder. Well, not founder, not exactly, because he’s punch drunk, because he doesn’t realize he’s foundering.
This leads directly into a second dinner sequence in which Lenny asks, in a roundabout, bewildering manner, for his new wife on their honeymoon that he wants to get divorced. It’s an uncomfortable riot and ends with an in-context howler. “Maybe,” Lenny plea bargains, “we should get dinner sometime.”
The final act finds Lenny trying to make nice with Mr. Corcoran by setting out for the frigid temperatures of Minneapolis and pontificating with the vacuous zealot of a religious convert, zanily braying at the dinner table about how there is no deceit in the cauliflower, while Mr. Corcoran cannot help but wonder WTF? This entire final act is a hysterical unraveling of the concept of True Love, or the Perfect Person, or a Soulmate, the ideals in which “The Heartbreak Kid’s” woeful remake willingly trafficked. May and Simon have no time for such hogwash and act accordingly, bringing it around so that Lenny gets right back to where he started from, in an exemplary closing sequence that finds him peddling his lovelorn crap to people who don’t really understand and eventually won’t even listen. He barely wants to listen. He’s already moved on in his mind, probably to his third wife he hasn’t met yet. The male gaze never stays settled for long.