The Reeler


October 4, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

Heartbreak remake's upped gross-out quotient marks the Farrelly ethos back in effect

The Farrelly Brothers leave no bodily fluid untapped in their raucous return to R-rated comedy, The Heartbreak Kid (their first since 2000’s Me, Myself and Irene). A remake of Elaine May’s eloquently downbeat 1972 film of the same name, it eagerly tries (and succeeds, more often than not) to recapture their shock and guffaw dominance of the mid-to-late '90s. To that end, they’ve upped the gross-out quotient from their more recent, sentimental experiments (Shallow Hal and Stuck on You), and cast reaction-shot king Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary) in the lead, as morose sporting goods store owner Eddie Cantrow.

The outline of the plot is taken from the '72 version, but most of the details differ wildly. Eddie falls in love with blonde-bombshell Lila (Marin Akerman) after a whirlwind six-week romance, and they swiftly tie the knot. After road-tripping to their honeymoon spot in Cabo, Lila reveals unsettling aspects to her character (including a quick temper and a remarkably elastic deviated septum). Once at the resort, Eddie is quickly attracted to Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a lower-key gal with a sarcastic sense of humor. Then comes the sticky question of how to dump the wife after a day of marriage.

In May’s film, scripted by Neil Simon, Eddie is a pathetic figure (played with great smarm by Charles Grodin), a sporting goods salesman who pursues his other woman, the über-shiksa Kelly (Cybil Shepherd), more out of a self-deceiving attempt at grabbing the American dream of class mobility than any kind of sentiment. Its humor is uncomfortable, the resolution damning. The Farrelly version, made by populists at heart, needs Eddie to be sympathetic in order for the film to fit the archetypal romantic comedy plot and to set up the veil of normalcy their set-piece gags will eventually overthrow.

Stiller’s Eddie is a meek guy thrust into a queasy situation, unable to deal with Lila’s unchecked aggression, especially in the disturbing sex scenes that elicited the loudest laughs in the screening I attended. Taking charge with brilliantly explicit dirty talk, Lila cows Stiller into shivering submission. It’s an instance of a vaguely disturbing trend: sexual demands made by women depicted as monstrous, scaring the erection off their mates. Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers and Michael Cera’s party date in Superbad are assertive in their own ways, but both initiate sex, and both become the butt of jokes.

Fisher’s incredibly manic performance is a gem that transcends her character’s limitations; Akerman achieves the same feat. It’s the best lead female performance in a Farrelly film since Cameron Diaz’s wonderfully unselfconscious turn in Mary. Akerman is perfectly in tune with the Farrelly’s slightly exaggerated, cartoon-like world, her throaty exhortations to Stiller in the sack so joyful and committed that the joke almost turns in on itself, mocking Stiller’s inability to keep up rather than Akerman’s sex drive. She’s clearly too much woman for him.

While the film isn’t as deeply felt as the hugely underrated Stuck on You (2003) or as consistently inventive as Mary, it’s still enormously funny (aside from Carlos Mencia‘s underwritten stereotype, Uncle Tito). Jerry Stiller and Rob Corddry are effortless scene-stealers -- Jerry’s wardrobe alone (Kangol hat with Hawaiian shirts) is enough to elicit a smile. There’s one sequence in Heartbreak, though, that neatly encapsulates the entire Farrelly ethos: When Stiller struggles to cross the U.S.-Mexico border the film takes on potentially offensive subject matter that could easily insult the people it depicts, but instead shows great respect for the Mexican immigrants and the trek they endure, even while Stiller gets pummeled by Border Agents and hobos with Three Stooges-like intricacy. It’s a shocking (and marvelously funny) feat -- just like the film itself.

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