Saturday, January 31, 2015

My favorite Neil Simon movie

Well, it was sure fun hosting for TCM.  Hope to do it again sometime.  Last night I showed my favorite Neil Simon movie, THE HEARTBREAK KID.  Here is my script for the intro and outro.   Written by me and Anne Wilson. 


Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a TV writer, playwright and a blogger – quick plug: Ken Levine dot blogspot dot com – and I’m back for the final night of hosting TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight” on Neil Simon. And right now we have my all-time favorite of his films. It’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” from 1972 starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepherd, also Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin.

This is a very atypical Neil Simon film – quite dark – with a screenplay based on a short story by Bruce J. Friedman. There aren’t a ton of Simon jokes and wisecracks here. It’s very satirical, very dry, very Jewish and the humor comes mostly from hypocrisy.

Grodin plays a total cad – a guy who only gets married because his girlfriend – Jeannie Berlin – won’t sleep with him until they’re legal. But of course, their first night together is horrible – at least, according to him.

They drive to Miami for his honeymoon anyway, and while there he proceeds to fall in love with a wasp-y beauty, played by Cybil Shepherd.

And he spends the entire honeymoon figuring out how he can be with her instead of his newylwed bride and convince Cybil’s father Eddie Albert that he’s worthy of his daughter’s hand. There’s clearly a level of Anti-Semitism in the Eddie Albert character, and Grodin is hardly a sympathetic character on any level, but you’ve got to give him credit for salesmanship, perseverance and moxie.

You’ll find yourself laughing at his sheer audacity.

And Eddie Albert steals absolutely every scene he’s in.

Jeannie Berlin is also fantastic as the jilted wife – and both Jeannie and Eddie Albert were nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances. The film is directed by Elaine May, who – as you may know – in the late 50’s and early 60’s was one-half of a comedy team with another one of Neil Simon’s long-time collaborators, Mike Nichols. Elaine may is also Jeannie Berlin’s mother.

Here’s the film, with Neil Simon himself in a cameo as one of the wedding guests. From 1972 – “The Heartbreak Kid.”


I love that movie. It’s sick and twisted – but the absurdity is played so straight, so dry, so earnest. I think a lot of the credit goes to director Elaine May for establishing the tone.

There’s also that scene with the egg salad – i mean, will you ever eat an egg salad sandwich again? Or not use sunblock?

In 2007, there was a remake of “The Heartbreak Kid” done by the Farelly Brothers starring Ben Stiller, but it was not faithful to the original story by Bruce J. Friedman and it was, I have to say, awful. For the record, Neil Simon was not associated with it.

Up next is another great Neil Simon movie – with a screenplay based on one of Simon’s own Broadway productions. On stage, it starred Peter Falk and Lee Grant – on film, it’s Jack Lemmon and Ann Bancroft. (The Prisoner of Second Avenue)

UPDATE:  One last plug for my friend, Robin Schiff's show on Amazon, DOWN DOG.  It's in contention for a series pick up.  Check it out and give it lots of stars.  Thanks.  Here's where to find it.


Oat Willie said...

I saw this yesterday and loved it. Eddie Albert always makes a great asshole ("Longest Yard", "Green Acres" etc)). As for Jeannie Berlin, she should have won an Oscar for "Bone" that same year. You might have seen Berlin lately in the trailer for "Inherent Vice" saying "You're better off with the Nazis."

normadesmond said...

i agree. love this movie, sat & watched it again for the umpteenth time. was surprised to see that the son of gypsy rose lee and otto preminger played the pecan pie waiter...(very well i might add).

jeannie berlin was both a
surprise & delight in "margaret."

also managed to rewatch parts of "prisoner of second avenue." i have a chronic malady; i get unusually sad whenever i see anne bancroft.i'll never get over her being gone.

Andy Ihnatko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Ihnatko said...

(Deleted and reposted to fix a few annoying typos.)

Disclaimer: I respect anyone's right to find anything funny without having to defend themselves or the movie. This stuff is subjective.

But for me, "The Heartbreak Kid" is the classic scenario of the art museum exhibit where everyone's staring at a spot of masking tape on the wall and falling to their knees and weeping over the beauty and savagery of the artist's statement, while I keep looking at the masking tape and then at the people weeping and I keep thinking...WTF?

I know the world agrees it's a classic but after several viewings I'm certain of my opinion it's just plain terrible. I tried watching it again last night and had the same reaction: this is a movie about a total asshole who does stupid, awful things without anything funny happening.

I kept thinking of Eddie Albert's character as the GOOD guy! Isn't he? He's the one preventing his daughter from marrying an OBVIOUS jerk who dumped his wife ON THEIR HONEYMOON to chase after a pretty young blonde! The one scene I liked in the whole movie was the one in his office where he's having his final showdown with Grodin. There's a huge bronze eagle on a marble pedestal on the desk and I couldn't take my eyes off it. I kept hoping that Albert would sweep it off of the desk and just keep beating Charles Grodin over the head with it. That's where I was with Grodin's character at that point.

Honestly! I've seen, and liked, movies featuring cads before. Dark comedy? Bring it on. But there's just no comedy in Grodin's behavior or the way that the movie presents it.

Worse, the suffering that he inflicts is wayyyy too palpable. Sure, it's funny to see his first wife talking with her mouth full with egg salad smeared over her face...but does that now put us in a place where where we're prepared to laugh at her well-acted increasing levels of confusion and deep hurt as things unfold?

Wile E. Coyote falling off the cliff is funny because we just see a distant *puff* when he hits the desert floor and then the cartoon moves on to next scene. If we see his broken, bloody body lying in a tangle as he screams in agony, praying for a swift death that in his heart, he knows he won't get...not really funny and it's not "dark comedy." It's just bad writing.

The comedy is way, WAY too dry. Let me explain: here's an egg carton with nine eggs in it. Watch as I take out three eggs. Get it?

?!? Why aren't you laughing?!?

For me, THAT's the experience of watching this movie. There are comedies that I didn't find funny but I can at LEAST spot the jokes that I wasn't getting.

My theory here is that "The Heartbreak Kid" is one of those films that worked great for the people who got to see it during its first run. They would have walked into the theater with an understanding of the society in which this story was taking place. The movie didn't need to create that necessary context on its own. Take the movie out of its era, though, and to many who aren't of that generation it's just a pile of scenes.

I keep trying to figure out how to fix this movie. I think one problem is that the story begins with a quick montage in which we meet Grodin, Grodin meets Jeannie Berlin, and the movie teleports STRAIGHT to a (way too long) wedding scene. I've no idea who the Charles Grodin character is, so I've no opportunity to understand WHY he's being such a total asshole. I don't know anything about the woman he married or what the relationship is like or the pressures (if any) he felt to marry, or why he's the kind of person who might rush into a bad decision.

As-is? This is a story about a total asshole who spends a couple of hours trying to switch partners without anything funny or memorable happening.

Except for the scene in which Grodin didn't get his brains bashed in by Eddie Albert. Even there, the movie failed to deliver.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I saw both THE HEARTBREAK KID and PRISONER OF SECOND AVE and noticed the radio guy in Minnesota had a distinct Brooklyn accent (could have been a transplant, but ...) and Gary Owen of LAUGH IN fame was one of the radio announcers in SECOND AVE.

Had a crush on Cybill Shepherd during her Cover Girl days in the early 70s. Less so as her true personality was revealed when she was fighting with Bruce Willis on MOONLIGHTING and Christine Baranski on CYBILL. From a previous post, Ken knows full well of what I speak.

VP81955 said...

Andy, I agree with much of what you wrote. Grodin's character is so thoroughly unlikable in this film that it's extremely difficult to accept him as a protagonist...something that might have worked had we understood a bit of his backstory. (Grodin is a fine actor, as we saw last week in "Seems Like Old Times.") Here, he's a jerk, and worse, we don't know the reason he's a jerk.

As for Cybill Shepherd, all I can say is that she has a tendency to make everyone around her better ("The Last Picture Show," "Moonlighting," "Cybill") -- even when we're at a loss to understand why.

VP81955 said...

Good point, MikeK. I'm certain Chuck Lorre would tell you that Anna Faris has more niceness in her little finger than Cybill has in her entire body.

YibbleGuy said...

Interesting title card. Normally, it's the director who gets the unearned possessive credit. (I forget which Hollywood wag said, "I went by Otto Preminger's house last night ... or is it 'A House By Otto Preminger'?") And most Neil Simon movies should indeed be billed as "Neil Simon's ..." whatever. But not this one. The reason this bears no resemblance whatsoever to any other Neil Simon film is that "The Heartbreak Kid" is an Elaine May film of a Bruce Jay Friedman story. If you've read the original BJF short story (or, really, *any* of his stories), you know where the dark comic tone of this film came from. If you've seen "A New Leaf," you know how that tone came to be realized on the screen. As for Simon, for the first and maybe only time in his life, he was just a mechanic who fixed a few of the parts, to help make the engine go.

gottacook said...

Ken, do you think the film would have worked (and I do think it does work) if they'd kept Friedman's original "A Change of Plan" ending? How do you think Simon ended up going for a more ambiguous ending?

(Tablet magazine posted the story online in 2007, presumably with Friedman's permission:

gottacook said...

YibbleGuy: Simon did more than just "fix a few of the parts"; the original story, like many Friedman stories, is very brief and wouldn't have made more than a 30- to 40-minute film. The story has no scenes on campus, for example (the film used the Univ. of Minnesota main campus in wintertime, which I know all too well).

Eric said...

I love this movie but I always thought it odd that Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin hadn't been together that long. To me it felt like he was dating this girl for awhile even though he wasn't crazy about her and felt immense pressure to marry her because that's the way things worked back then. It was only through the trip to Florida, especially at the diner, where he saw how unsatisfying his life would be if he stayed with this woman. I guess that's why I never thought of Leonard Cantone as a cad but as someone who was trapped and had to bust out of it.

Cap'n Bob said...

I saw it in the theater when it came out and my reaction was negative. I few laughs, but they didn't make up for my dislike of Grodin's character. Maybe I'd like it better after all these years, but I missed it last night.

mickey said...

Love this movie, but I always identified it with Friedman more than Simon. Grodin makes it work because everything he does is awful and selfish, but somehow seems clueless about how awful he is.

mickey said...

Love this movie, but I always identified it with Friedman more than Simon. Grodin makes it work because everything he does is awful and selfish, but somehow seems clueless about how awful he is.

Casey C said...

Understated and delicately complex, HEARTBREAK KID is a prime example of a cerebral comedy, May did a great job at showcasing his darker side. The charming theme music was by Cy Coleman(who did the music for SWEET CHARITY). Thank you for hosting and posting! I’ve enjoyed all the intros/outros!

Griff said...

I realize that this is indeed a dark and cerebral comedy, and perhaps not for all tastes. I'm not surprised by some of the articulate responses above from commenters that simply don't care for the film. But I stand with Ken on this picture; I think it's the best screenplay Simon has ever written, and it's very deftly directed by Elaine May. The "pecan pie" scene with Grodin and Berlin is an extraordinary mix of comedy and tragedy. The scene in which Albert invites Grodin into his study and, after a few pleasantries, finally starts to read him the riot act, is perfectly acted and structured -- and explosively funny. Grodin's performance is unique; his character does swinish, thoughtless, even unforgivable acts, but thanks to the actor, we remain bizarrely fascinated with Leonard, and almost root for him to succeed. Berlin is brilliant; it's a shame she didn't get more opportunities back in the day. [I cannot in good conscience recommend 1975's SHEILA LEVINE, Berlin's one shot at a star-vehicle, but its failure wasn't her fault.] Albert's craggy presence and impeccable timing is essential to the success of the movie.

Early Fox press material for the film back in '72 mentioned something about a slightly different ending to the movie in which Leonard and Kelly go on a honeymoon ocean cruise on which -- well, something apparently happens. The press material didn't specify what. At any rate, it seemed like the ending as originally planned differed both from the film as released and from the Friedman story.

I don't know whether either Simon or May have ever much discussed the change (which would likely have come not long before release) to the film's ending, and believe me, I'm not one to question or judge why they might have made the change. I mean, this is an outstanding picture; one of the best comedies of the '70s. Still, I have always remained curious about the originally scripted ending.

Ken, do you know anything about this?

SER said...

Grodin was 37 in 1972 and Shepherd 22. Was there supposed to be so great an age difference? Or is Grodin's character written as a man in his mid to late 20s? The latter would make sense given that he's just settling down.

Hotcha said...

The 'quickplug' of a complete web adress is so .... Why radio people think that I can remember an adress full of dashs and dots rather than just a name that I will google is beyond me.

Unknown said...

Perfect review. We just saw it today and you are spot on. Eddie Albert's character is the only one we liked and could identify with.

Anonymous said...

Time was when people who weren't particularly lovable or compatible got married all the time in just such ways! Perhaps things have progressed since the 70s, and perhaps not. That may be funnier to some of us than it is to others depending upon how happy or unhappy we are with our marriages.

Berlin's character (Lila) got my sympathy vote simply because she was treated so badly. She may not have "deserved" love, but she certainly didn't deserve hate. She was left to wonder why she deserved Lenny even for a short time, possibly for the rest of her life, and that REALLY sucks.

scottmc said...

The headlines announcing the death of Charles Grodin mentioned either 'Beethoven' or 'The Heartbreak Kid'. Many of the comments from readers were about how great 'Kid' was and how impossible it is to find on DVD or streaming. Grodin was also an author and a close friend of Herb Gardner. He helped rescue a Gardner play that was struggling out-of-town and spoke he at Gardner's memorial.