I’m not dying; who said anything about dying? I want outta the marriage! I want outta the goddamn marriage.
The break-up in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) is one of the most agonizing, mortifying scenes in American film history. This is comedy as torture, torture as comedy, about as funny as a tightening thumbscrew. And it’s set in a tacky Miami Beach seafood joint with only half a slice left of its famous pecan pie. The worst place to announce the impending dissolution of your days-old marriage. The vicarious pain and nausea intensify with every new detail: the honeymooning bride starts to sob, choke, and hyperventilate as her husband’s news sinks in; he tries to smooth things over, to keep her from causing a scene. Then, of course, the waiter brings over that half-slice of pie.
Charles Grodin plays Lenny, the husband, and it’s what I’d call a “brave performance” because the character is so goddamn unlikeable. He’s a schmuck, a middle-class salesman from New York who marries a nice Jewish girl, then starts pondering a divorce before they even get to Florida. Lenny’s defined by a handful of negative traits: he’s callous, insincere, and most of all audacious. He’s a pathological liar, really, inventing all these bullshit stories so he can court glamorous shikse Cybill Shepherd while his wife Lila recovers from a nasty sunburn. And Grodin sells the character, too, with his plastered-on smiles (always pretending everything’s fine), his faux-empathy, and his faux-indignation. He’s an everyman, and a sociopath.
Hell, is there even a difference between the two? Part of what makes Lenny so terrifying and difficult to watch is that he’s normal through and through. He has platitudes and justifications to back up his every selfish act. Faced with his prospective father-in-law, a stone-faced Minnesotan businessman, he describes his current marriage a “big mistake… Radio City Music Hall big,” but nevertheless “the decent thing to do.” He wears “decency” like a suit of armor, and it’s impossible to tell if a real Lenny even exists beneath the lies, the mind games, and the raw determination. (He proudly identifies himself as “probably the most determined young man you have ever seen.”)
The sickest twist of this acrid comedy is that Lenny gets what he wants. He’s an unstoppable force, immovable objects be damned; he’s going to fulfill his American dream, his masculine prerogative, even if Lila has to suffer for it. Lila’s only crime? Not being Cybill Shepherd. Being the “nice Jewish girl.” She isn’t dumb, or unattractive, or unpleasant. A little gullible, maybe, but how is she supposed to guess that her entire honeymoon has been an elaborate ruse? So she suffers. She suffers through that protracted break-up, misunderstanding Lenny’s cues before being blindsided by his desire to get “outta the goddamn marriage.”
The metatextual irony here is that Lila’s played by Jeannie Berlin, the daughter of The Heartbreak Kid’s director, Elaine May. Casting one’s daughter isn’t too unheard of—just ask Dario Argento or Francis Ford Coppola—but this is an especially degrading part, and Berlin spends much of the film flecked with lotion or egg salad, playing her own humiliation for muted comedy. Watching her, I’m both upset and awed: What kind of mother would subject her daughter to this kind of onscreen torment? On the other hand, what kind of mother wouldn’t help her daughter receive this rich of a professional opportunity? (Sure enough, Berlin received her only Oscar nomination to date for the performance.)
And as audiences are rediscovering now, courtesy of her role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, Berlin is extraordinary. Here, she’s essential to her mother’s comedy of cruelty, exuding the naïveté (“I never thought that I’d get to Florida!” she gushes) that makes her so susceptible to Lenny—and to the kind of toxic male egos that populate the rest of May’s scant filmography. Men with tunnel vision; men incapable of resolving moral dilemmas. Men who initiate the circuitous verbal tangos that May stages for maximum pain and nervous laughter. Breaking up is hard to do, unless you’re as psychotically audacious as Lenny. Then it’s as easy as pecan pie.