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Original vs. Remake: The Heartbreak Kid

Heartbreak_kidWhy do studios bother remaking classic films for audiences who won’t remember the original? I’ll bet that a lot of the people who go to Ben Stiller movies will have no idea that The Heartbreak Kid is based on one of the great American comedies of the 1970s—and if they are, they probably won’t have seen it. (The DVD has been out of print for a few years.)

Both films share the same premise: a man gets married to a woman he hasn’t known very long. On their honeymoon, he meets a woman he likes better, and spends the bulk of the trip lying to his new bride so that he can get away to spend time with his new love. After a few days, he tells his wife he wants a divorce and pursues the woman he hopes will be her successor back to her home, where her family is less than happy to see him.

The 1972 original was adapted from a Bruce Jay Friedman story by Neil Simon (though it’s not typical of his usual polished style), the movie wears its Jewishness on its sleeve: when Cybill Shepherd appears as the other woman, few viewers won’t be thinking to themselves, “Shiksa!” Directed by Elaine May, the movie is also filled with similarities to The Graduate, directed five years earlier by her former comedy partner Mike Nichols.

If you like movies where you can develop a nice cozy self-identification with the main characters, this is not the film for you. In his first starring role, Charles Grodin is brilliant as Lenny, a guy whose indefensible behavior flies in the face of our inclination to sympathize with him. Sure, his wife (an Oscar nominated performance by Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter) eats with her mouth open, sings loudly and off-key and can safely be described as emotionally needy. Still, she doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets. We don’t blame Lenny for lusting after Cybill Shepherd, but we can’t excuse him acting on his impulse. And that’s the tension that fuels the film’s humor: we laugh harder because we feel like we shouldn’t be laughing at all.

The new version stars Ben Stiller, was directed by the Farrelly Brothers, and is just what you would expect from that combination. Our hero is re-christened “Eddie,” and given a backstory and buddies, making him more conventionally sympathetic. His wife is a seemingly innocent, upstanding young woman who after marriage turns out to be an insatiable slut with a history of drug abuse. The woman Eddie leaves her for is not a vacuous flirt who will be every bit as bad a wife, but a wholesome All-American girl who truly is Eddie’s soulmate.

In place of the discomfiting humor is a standard assortment of the gleefully coarse scenes the Farrellys revel in. Suffice to say a donkey is involved in one. Perhaps wary of the charge of cleaning this material up, they level a last second surprise that renders the movie false even to itself.

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