Elaine May’s 1972 comedy, “The Heartbreak Kid,” is about a cad who abandons his wife on their honeymoon to chase an ideal woman. The audience knows he’s a cad, and the comedy comes from the squirmy way he tries to get what he wants as he attempts to justify his awful actions.
Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s 2007 remake delivers a lot of laughs despite the fact we’re clearly supposed to root for and feel sorry for the cad, played by Ben Stiller, no matter how squirmy or awful his actions.
Eddie Cantrow (Stiller) is a San Francisco sporting-goods store owner who has just turned 40 and wonders why he’s still single. He meets Lila (Malin Akerman), a seemingly perfect girl who loves making out with him when she’s not talking about her job as an environmental researcher.
After a whirlwind courtship, the two tie the knot, but the movie turns on a dime and Lila becomes a compulsive lunatic who tortures Eddie with off-key radio sing-alongs, bizarre physical ailments (the Farrellys squeeze out every possible deviated-septum gag) and the least appealing sexy talk you’ve ever heard.
The audience is supposed to be understanding when Eddie starts hitting on Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty lacrosse coach from Mississippi, while Lila is holed up in their Mexican honeymoon resort, nursing an awful sunburn. Farcical misunderstandings ensue, but all of the moments where Miranda and Eddie just miss having the conversation about what’s really happening will make you wish you were watching a Judd Apatow comedy, where the characters talk about everything, no matter how awkward the situation becomes.
It’s unclear where this remake goes astray. Is it because Stiller, even when playing characters who are somewhat immature and loutish, needs the adoration of his public? Is it because the original was directed by May, who didn’t feel the need to filter her portrayal of male selfishness, while the Farrellys empathize too much with their protagonist’s dilemma?
Maybe it’s just that mainstream cinema has gotten so anti-woman that it’s OK to make a movie where the hero can justify not having married a woman because she thought “the gopher in ‘Caddyshack’ looked fake,” while making all the female characters shrews, whores or perfect little goddesses.
In any event, it’s impossible to entirely dismiss the new “Heartbreak Kid” because it does indeed deliver on the laughs, both on a verbal (a gym coach refers to marijuana as “the devil’s lettuce”) and physical (if you didn’t already know how to cure a jellyfish sting, you will now) level. You’ll just feel guilty later when you realize that you gave your empathy to a character who doesn’t deserve it.