The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May / U.S., 1972):

A meticulous winnowing of the male ego for the clueless schmuck in it: Neil Simon provides the tracks, Elaine May the locomotive, Charles Grodin the great mass of shifting smiles that's run over. Grodin's courting of Jeannie Berlin under the opening credits is a model of compressed info (his mask practiced in front of a mirror, her insistence on not putting out before marriage) to be examined, heightened, inverted over the course of the film; the two receive their mazel tovs in New York and are off to their honeymoon in Miami, the moony Burt Bacharach song played during the wedding is honked en route by the wife. Berlin's faults become magnified, her cleavage and egg salad-chomping suddenly seem unspeakably vulgar to Grodin, who hears "for the rest of our lives" and freezes like a caught deer -- this is the acidic satire of Gogol and Wilder and Germi, revised by May even as she rigorously sticks to the asshole's point-of-view. Coarse, rounded and covered with sunburn cream, Berlin is trapped in a hotel room while Grodin pursues a tawny, flirtatious Valkyrie (Cybill Shepherd) on vacation with her Jockey Club folks. Eddie Albert's master class of slow-burns and double-takes as her father is utilized brilliantly by May in a continuous take as Grodin lays the cards on the table ("Decency doesn't always pay off, you know"); the "drop the bombshell" sequence with Berlin at the restaurant is just as astonishing, a daringly extended breakdown that spares no pain even as a waiter butts in with dessert. The second half finds the hollowness of the dream dawning on the protagonist ("Gee, I'm really flattered," Shepherd responds to news of Grodin's divorce), though he can't back down now, he's become his drive. The humor's emotive sourness registers a devastating riposte to the glib smoothness of The Graduate, with that film's evasion of ethnicity and unearned redemption brought out for a thorough excoriation. "You're talking to a brick wall," Albert sternly informs Grodin -- he nevertheless pierces through, only to find the bleakest of comic endings on the other side. With Audra Lindley.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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