Yesterday, my wife and I went with six other couples to an afternoon showing of the new “The Heartbreak Kid” at our local cineplex. Then we went out for a nice Italian dinner, drank a little wine, and got ready for part two. That involved going back to our place and watching the original “The Heartbreak Kid” in our home theater. I’ve been doing this kind of comparison viewing for these Smackdowns for a while now, but never quite so organized and never with so many other voices in the mix. We definitely came up with a consensus winner — more on that at the end.
Basically, both pictures share the basic plot points and it will spoil nothing to say them out loud. Start with a male character who’s desperate to end his prolonged bachelor status and let him rush into a bad marriage. Send him off on a honeymoon with a woman who quickly becomes unbearable to him. Give that woman a world-class sunburn so that she has to go to ground, allowing him to roam the nearby beaches and meet the real woman of his dreams. Let our guy fall in love and have to confess to this new woman that he’s… well… married. It’s a good comic problem and, really, at its most basic level, this is a very painful situation for people to be in. There’s a phrase I hear a lot in my rounds out here in Hollywood, in various contexts, but it clearly applies to films, sports, sex and damn near all pursuits: execution is everything. So let’s see who executes best:
The Challenger (2007)
There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen. Not only do Peter and Bobby Farrelly make up two directors where one is usually enough for most movies, but the writing credit needs a translation key. According to the credits, this film is “Based on a Screenplay by Neil Simon” which was “Based on the Short Story ‘A Change of Plans’ by Bruce Jay Friedman” and has been constructed from a “Screenplay by Scot Armstrong and Leslie Dixon and Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly & Kevin Barnett.” This means that it started as a short story, Neil Simon turned it into the original movie, then this re-make was first attempted by Scot Armstrong who got replaced by Leslie Dixon who got replaced by the Farrelly Brothers who worked on the final draft with Kevin Barnett. Stephanie Zacharek over at Salon called the picture a “veritable Volkswagen stuffed with writers” and it’s an apt metaphor here.
Clearly, the Farrelly Brothers are betting that this long and winding road would put a new successful film on their resume that includes “Dumb and Dumber,” “Shallow Hal” and “Me, Myself and Irene” — all comedies that are over-the-top affairs that provoke laughter often through their sheer uncomfortableness. Who can forget screaming out loud in the theater when Ben Stiller gets his manhood caught in his zipper in “Something About Mary”? The Farrelly’s latest film, though, puts a spin on the characters that’s new. The people in “The Heartbreak Kid” aren’t just people who have bad or uncomfortable things happen to them, in many cases they are the cause of these events.
Ben Stiller’s Eddie is another of his tormented normal guy characters that is maybe getting a little familiar, but it’s still a comic invention seemingly as reliable as the Little Tramp was almost a century ago. The revelation in this film, though, is actress Malin Akerman, who plays his new bride, Lila, and suffers through more indignity than any actress in recent comic movie making. By the end of the film, your eyes narrow when she comes on the screen, you want to shut her out, because she makes you so damn uncomfortable which is, after all, her role in the film. Loved Rob Corddry, didn’t like Ben’s dad, Jerry Stiller, who plays his dad here in an unfunny imitation of the Alan Arkin character from “Little Miss Sunshine.” The woman of Stiller’s dreams is Miranda, played by Michelle Monaghan who comes with a complete wacked-out family of her own misfits.
The Defending Champion (1972)
Back when he reviewed the original in 1972, New York Times critic Vincent Canby called this film “a first-class American comedy, as startling in its way as was ‘The Graduate.'” I’d bet that most — if not all — of our film group last night had actually seen this film before, either as kids in the theaters or on some late night TV showing in the decade or so after. Memories dim. I knew the basics of the plot, and remembered that Cybill Shepherd totally ruled as a WASP goddess.
She’s not that clearly drawn as a character as I had remembered. She’s blonde and beautiful, yes, but in her own way she may have her own set of deficiencies. If Lila, the first wife, is unexpectedly obnoxious, it begins to look like Shepherd’s Kelly is unexpectedly detached and lacking in passion.
Even getting to screen, this film had its share of writers: first came the article, then Neil Simon’s adaptation and, as history records it, a fairly extensive uncredited work-over by director Elaine May. Yet its tone manages to be consistent throughout. It is not a farce; it is a comedy that wants to be seen as a drama.
At its core is Charles Grodin whose deadpan acting works perfectly here. He quickly goes to default lying and cheating. Nobody in a story meeting on this film ever said, “I’m afraid he’s not likable.” He actually does come off with some of the same aura of alienation that Dustin Hoffman carried with him in “The Graduate.” Even the storyline has Grodin following his true love to her college campus just like Hoffman did before him.
The ending here is awesome. It’s the kind that causes 70s films to now be looked at with great longing by film buffs who hate how Hollywood has over-studied everything in its risk aversion and made studio films such safe by-the-numbers affairs. The original is ambiguous, thoughtful, not-so-tidy, and fascinating.
On at least a superficial level, the re-make of “The Heartbreak Kid” is certainly in the wheelhouse of the original, but it’s been twisted and contorted to supposedly appeal to the sensibilities of today’s audiences. Obviously studio execs greenlit this project with the hope Ben Stiller will get young audiences who weren’t even born when the original was made into the theaters and that the Farrellys could deliver the kind of ranch that made “Superbad” a super-hit.
Let’s go to the core character, the actual “Heartbreak Kid” in each of these. Ben Stiller is given an Eddie to play who is a surface-deep, desperate fellow who really isn’t all that likable. At least his pal, the Rob Corddry character, may be a hen-pecked lout, but he’s trying to just keep an even strain on things. Flashing back to 1972, though, Charles Grodin has a character in Lenny who has definite social climber tendencies, and his performance is inside, not outside, the character. Both Lenny and Eddie are people who find out in this story that they can’t be trusted by others, or themselves, but Grodin makes it real and Stiller makes it broad, content to go with borrowing a bit of all his suffering, grimacing characters who have gone before. Obviously, the Farrellys and their writing posse decided that Ben Stiller needed to be a little less complicit in his own deception in the latest film, and that decision robs their latest film of spice and uniqueness.
Even though it’s true that on a macro level both of these films share the same plot, they do deviate widely in their sensibilities and approach to it. There’s one huge difference in the plot between the two movies. In the 1972 original, Lenny actually comes clean with Kelly and tells her he’s married. In the 2007 re-make, Eddie keeps the news from Miranda through a series of misunderstandings. The first looks to character for its comedy, the second looks to farce.
This is true all the way to the ending which, as mentioned, is thoughtful and poignant in the original and ridiculous in the re-make. In 1972, Lenny had problems. In 2007, Eddie is the problem.
The original 1972 “The Heartbreak Kid” came five years after the film it wanted to be, “The Graduate.” It did not replace or knock off that film, but it earns the right to be mentioned in the same breath. It’s that good. I guess it’s a fault that it borrows so heavily that the main character goes to claim his new bride from the college she attends, but it rises above that knock to succeed on its own.
The 2007 re-make of “The Heartbreak Kid” comes almost a decade after the movie it wants to be, “Something About Mary.” It’s not even in the universe. It’s not funny and, in the places where it wants to be outrageous, it’s usually just offensive.
The first film was made for adults. The second film has been made for kids but it’s the wrong story with the wrong direction and the wrong take.
Not that I’m slavish to opinions of the film crowd over at Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s worth noting that their aggregate opinion of the 1972 “The Heartbreak Kid” was 89% positive while their estimation of this latest 2007 version is just 32%. Can you take comedy too far? Maybe you can, if these numbers are any indication. It felt like comic desperation time to our crowd as well.
The 2007 re-make of “The Heartbreak Kid” is intermittently funny during its first half as you try to root for it to come out of its slump and rise to the comic levels we remember the Farrelly Brothers are capable of. It not only fails, in the second half it fails specatacularly. By the end of the film, you’ve just had it with this creation. As we filed out of the theater with our friends, I’m sure everybody was thinking, “Let’s get to that restaurant and get a drink on board quick.”
On the other hand, watching the original was a treat. Do not see this lousy imitation in the theaters. Do what we did. Have a glass of wine, sit down with friends, and treat yourself to the 1972 “The Heartbreak Kid.”