Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Heartbreak Kid

Illustration for article titled The Heartbreak Kid

Like Albert Brooks' Modern Romance, Elaine May's 1972 Oscar-nominated classic The Heartbreak Kid is one of the great anti-romantic comedies, a merciless dissection of love and marriage in which people treat each other with astonishing cruelty. It's a deeply uncomfortable movie (and the plot point about Jewish man Charles Grodin abandoning his wife for shiksa Cybill Shepherd only adds to the queasiness), but it never crosses into sadism, because the characters are three-dimensional and the deadpan tone is controlled and honest to the core. Though the Farrelly brothers' remake abandons the Jew/WASP angle and allows for a lot of silly, lighthearted shtick on the margins, it's actually crueler than the original, because the various abuses aren't relieved by any insight into what commitment means, or how good people wind up hurting each other.

While the film needs the put-upon Ben Stiller of Flirting With Disaster or There's Something About Mary, it instead gets the recently emerged, more manic version of Stiller, who immediately throws the humor out of balance. (Grodin, master of the mirthless stare, gave a disaffected performance that many compared to Dustin Hoffman's in The Graduate.) The lonely owner of a San Francisco sporting-goods store, Stiller tends to nitpick his way out of relationships, so when he meets Malin Akerman, he goes to the other extreme and proposes to her after only six weeks. Shortly after the ceremony, he realizes he's made a mistake; on the drive to a resort in Cabo, he wonders how he can make it through the honeymoon, much less another 40 or 50 years. After severe sunburn waylays Akerman, Stiller finds temptation in the supple form of Michelle Monaghan, a good-humored Southern belle who's much more his speed.

The Farrellys have a reputation for chasing over-the-top gross-out material with disarming sweetness, but they're shockingly awful to Akerman, who's transformed into an insufferable nag from the second she finishes her nuptials. In the original film, the husband's hang-ups and peccadilloes are a large part of the problem, but here, the wife is to blame for just about everything, from her irrational freakouts and bedroom antics to the icky body details. Meanwhile, Monaghan gets off scot-free, as if she were the heroine in a much breezier romantic comedy. There are a few funny incidental bits, but the only consistent laughs come from Rob Corddry as Stiller's whipped buddy; unfortunately, his character doesn't make the trip to Cabo, where the wackiness is left to Carlos Mencia as a mustachioed yahoo named Uncle Tito. Embellishments to Neil Simon's original script were inevitable, but when you're adding an "Uncle Tito," you're definitely on the wrong track.