Buyer’s Remorse

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Finally caught up with THE HEARTBREAK KID after meaning to see it for years. Father Ted creators Graham Linehan & Arthur Matthews rate this one as a favourite, which marks it out as above the general run of Neil Simon movies, and it’s almost unique among NS films in that it has a recognized director, Elaine May. The one other auteur collaboration in Simon’s oeuvre is THE SLUGGER’S WIFE, a collaboration with Hal Ashby which ended with the director booted off the film after turning in a first cut which featured no dialogue for the first half hour. An approach better calculated to alienate the king of the one-liners could hardly be imagined.

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May was a lot better at handling Simon, In his wonderful memoir It Would be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, Grodin talks about how Simon briefly wanted to fire him (after the first read-through) and constantly wanted to fire Jeannie Berlin, complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough. May graciously accepted Simon’s criticisms, soothed his feathers and carried on, never letting him know that Berlin was in fact her daughter.

May is so good at the comedy of conflicted response, and that area seems so alien to Simon’s work, that I find myself wondering to what extent she’s subverting the material — with the author in the room. From what he says in his book, Grodin was clearly aware that his character could easily be seen as “creepy and hateful” –and those qualities played a part in my reading of him, though maybe ultimately “pitiful” is a better word — this guy, who runs out on his wife on their honeymoon because he meets Cybill Shepherd, is never going to be happy, and he’s going to leave a trail of human devastation behind him. Grodin was slightly surprised at the number of men who told him they identified deeply — and uncritically — with the character, which suggests he and May succeeded in balancing the portrayal so that people with the same character flaws as Grodin would see him as entirely reasonable. I wonder if those guys found it funny? Fiona likened it to a comedy version of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

Still, Simon did give it that title. He must’ve known what he was doing. He must.

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Jeannie Berlin gets a lot of the best laughs, though it’s teamwork all the way. Fiona loved her inability to behave like a dream girl. A lot of her behaviour WOULD work with some men — getting her boobs out on the freeway, for instance, which Grodin reacts to with hilarious, infantile panic. An exactly similar moment occurs in May’s previous A NEW LEAF, in which Walter Matthau emits a plaintive “No, don’t let them out!” and runs away. Maybe the reason Isabelle Adjani’s boob flash in ISHTAR seems to upset so many people — really, so many of the bad reviews focus on this moment — is because Dustin Hoffman doesn’t deliver a clear and exaggerated comic reaction to justify it. It becomes sexposition.

Berlin’s last scene is HORRIFIC and DISTRESSING! And then she disappears from the picture and we’re supposed to root for Grodin on his quest to get the girl. While this last fifth — the traditional three act/four part structure doesn’t seem to apply here — has some good laughs but is governed by a gnawing uncertainty and tension (Where is this GOING?) — it’s as if the bigger dramatic problem was not “boy gets girl” but “boy gets rid of previous girl” and with Berlin out of the way a strange calm descends, as Grodin’s character impresses by his rather astonishing determination. Romantic comedy sociopath.

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12 Responses to “Buyer’s Remorse”

  1. As a director I find that May “bonds” with her leading actors to the degree that she lets them set the tone for the movie as a whole. The Heatbreak Kid belongs to Grodin in the same way that Mikey and Nicky (her masterpiece) belongs to Cassavetes and Falk, and Ishtar belongs to Warren Beatty.

    Jeannie Berlin is indeed amazing. It’s a shame we don’t see her more often. Most recently she’s appeared in Kenneth Longeran’s egregious, unaccountably praised piece of twaddle Margaret (whose best scenes belong to the mighty Kieran Culkin) As for Jeannie’s Mom I’m total stoked that she’s going to direct the “American Masters” documentary on (wait for it) Mike Nichols!

  2. I really enjoyed watching those AFI clips. She has such terrific comic timing & delivery. Thank you David Ehrenstein.

  3. Jeannie Berlin has a terrific scene in “Inherent Vice.” // I thought I detected a potent erotic charge underneath the maroon paint and Manic-Pixie-Nightmare shenanigans of “Heartbreak Kid” and I eagerly anticipated a filmography packed with screwball heiresses and lesbian vampires, but she took a 40 year sabbatical. I try not to take it personally.

  4. Grodin thought Jeannie B was extremely attractive and ideally cast. Fiona loved her breast-thrusting scene in the car: “She’s a slut! I love her!”

  5. Absolutely. Jeannie and Cybil would both have been high maintenance, in radically different ways, but I thought Jeannie would have been worth it.

  6. And I think she would have stayed with him. About Cybill, I’m not so sure. But he’s going to tire of her first anyway, because it’s his nature.

  7. You’re welcome Ms. Bilson.

    And that reminds me another great piece of May casting was Carol Matthau (billed as “Carol Grace”) as the old girlfriend Cassavetes and Falk visit in Mikey and Nicky. Read her memoir “Among the Porcupines.” It’s really something.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    As for auteur directors and Neil Simon … what about Mike Nichols and BILOXI BLUES (1988)? Not that I’ve seen it, mind you, but it sounds like it has some virtues, and it isn’t often one gets to hear Simon dialogue performed by Christopher Walken

  9. Jules Feiffer thought that film captured the experience of basic training better than Full Metal Jacket (“Too stylised.”) But I’m not certain if 80s Nichols qualifies as an auteur, or an any rate if his work on that film qualifies.

    To make sense of his career arc, I probably need to see Silkwood at last…

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