Freeze Frame

Forget Fargo and A Simple Plan: A quarter-century ago, The Heartbreak Kid had Minnesota down cold

Even in 1972, Browne was more interested in film as a business than in acting, but in his few Heartbreak scenes he did manage to project a terse anti-charisma--precisely what the film required. Legend has it--and Browne doesn't much dispute the claim--that the young player used the handsome sum he received for his one-and-only movie role to buy a Mercedes-Benz. Thus, I suspect any local Kid detractors would say Browne sold his ethnicity to Hollywood for a smooth ride and a few privileged moments with Cybill Shepherd. But those who appreciate the joke, including Browne, might instead toast his game participation in a great comedy--not to mention the mysterious Minnesota savvy that enabled the "guy with the big neck" to have the last laugh.

The Heartbreak Kid met Minnesota ticket buyers at the Downtown World on February 2, 1973, its belated release buoyed by months of local reportage, a gala benefit screening the night before, and a sexy print ad topped by this rave from the New York Times's Vincent Canby: "THE BEST AND THE MOST ORIGINAL AMERICAN COMEDY OF 1972. As startling in its way as was 'The Graduate.'"

Local reviews were mostly approving if markedly less ecstatic--and, in the case of one pan, unintentionally revealing. Weighing in on the pro side was the Minneapolis Tribune's Ben Kern, who, after taking issue with the Eastern-accented weatherman and Mr. Corcoran's "'cabin in the mountains,' evidently the Minnesota Catskills," conceded that, "okay, the film still packs a rich satirical wallop." (Kern described the Cybill Shepherd character as "a bland blonde coed named Kelly, from Minnesota--to a New York Jew a real exotic.") On the other side of the river, the Pioneer Press's Bill Diehl found the movie "bright and funny (though unnecessarily flawed)" while referencing Shepherd's "schiksa [sic]" and the "promised land" of Miami Beach.

But the standout notice was Don Morrison's two-part critique in the Minneapolis Star--which, without once mentioning ethnicity, labeled Neil Simon "the leading schlockmeister of slick comedy"; Lila "a vapid little girl whose infuriating mannerisms [Lenny] had never really noticed before"; and Lenny "a pushing New York salesman type." Kelly, meanwhile, was "the girl of the impossible American Dream."

Morrison took particular exception to The Heartbreak Kid's pièce de resistance--that is, Lenny's prolonged attempt to dump his bride over a lobster dinner in Miami Beach, a masterpiece of comedic/horrific complication that the critic reduced to a "cruel and excruciating episode that goes on for 11 minutes." Actually, the scene (to which Todd Solondz recently paid limp homage in the opening minutes of his Happiness) is an audacious, visionary, astonishingly acted, perhaps even perversely exhilarating means for the director to pose the final essay question in her film's Rorschach test: to dare viewers to decide for themselves what's funny, cute, sympathetic, reprehensible, or just plain gross along a continuum that for any conscientious audience would have to include some consideration of its own prejudices. (May deliberately gives us next to nothing about the characters' back-stories--they're all reducible to their ethnicities and behaviors.)

The scene opens with a close-up of a twitching lobster being poked and prodded in a bowl--the foreshadowed image of Lila, and of the cold plate the director is about to serve her audience. Lenny hems and haws for what seems like an eternity, clinging to the last shred of decency he has nearly torn to pieces in his plans to hop the Greyhound north. Lila, God bless her, chews on the lobster shell, giggles apropos of nothing, and generally acts sweeter and more beautiful than ever. Lenny, ever the salesman, rambles on about her youthful opportunities, how we "only pass through life but one time," how the restaurant is unbearably hot. (Beating around the bush, Lenny has never seemed more Minnesotan.) Lila, so naively trusting of her husband as to seem at once strong and pathetic, mistakenly thinks he's attempting to tell her that he's dying--thus prompting Lenny, finally, to deliver the kicker: "I want outta the marriage! I want outta the goddamn marriage!"

For Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who recently included The Heartbreak Kid among the 100 greatest American movies ever made (a list he proposed as an alternative to the American Film Institute's notoriously conservative lineup), the breakup scene is the crowning moment in a movie he praises for its "cruel compassion." "I think one of the things that makes it a dangerous film," he says, "is that Elaine May is one of the only directors who deals so well with what you'd have to call Jewish anti-Semitism." (Clinching that theme while giving it an especially uncomfortable edge is the fact that the actress playing Lila, Jeannie Berlin, is May's own daughter.)

"At the same time," Rosenbaum says, "it's always interesting to me that the most politically and socially subversive American films are often not read as such. With Heartbreak Kid, the Jewishness and the WASPishness of the characters is very central to what's going on, even though so many of the reviews never mentioned it. It's fascinating to try to figure out the ideological reasons why people choose to ignore something that's so blatantly in their face."

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