This film review of appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 22nd 2007
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Written by Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly and Kevin Barnett
Starring Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Jerry Stiller and Rob Corddry
One of the mostly forgotten gems of Jewish film in early 1970s – a time of great flowering of Jewish stories on screen – was the Elaine May-directed adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan”. Friedman’s original short story ran only seven pages, and it was Neil Simon’s exquisite screenplay – under the new title of The Heartbreak Kid – that made this film one of the most poignant documents on the nature of American Jewish post-war assimilation.
In this 1972 version, Charles Grodin played a young Jewish man who throws over his whiny and unattractive Jewish wife (Jeannie Berlin) during his honeymoon, once he is smitten by a blond ice queen, played by Cybill Shepherd. Fiercely determined, the Charles Grodin character ultimately woos and wins his “shiksa”, but the final scene – an emotionally chilly church wedding between them – shows how hollow his ultimate “victory” really is. Neil Simon’s powers of observation of contemporary American-Jewish manhood have never been better.
Thus it is with some fascination that we find a remake of this film by the Farrelly brothers (Peter and Bobby, who together co-directed and co-wrote), best-known for sometimes edgy comedies: There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal and Me, Myself and Irene. In the lead role of Eddie Cantrow is Ben Stiller, aged appreciably in this version to 40 years old. He has two side-kicks: an unhappily married friend Mac (Rob Corddry) and his father “Doc”, played by his real-life dad Jerry Stiller, best-known for his role of Frank Constanza in Seinfeld.
Poor Eddie, the owner of a successful San Francisco sporting goods shop, is under a whole lot of pressure to partner and get married. The film opens with a wedding of a former girlfriend, during which Eddie is humiliatingly relegated to the kids’ table because “that’s the singles”. One day on the street, Eddie valiantly tries to stop a mugging and rescue a woman. The thief gets away, but a relationship blooms with Lila (played by Swedish-born formal model Malin Akerman). At first, the relationship is a very chaste one, and after much classic Ben Stiller hedging, he impulsively proposes marriage.
Here is where The Heartbreak Kid starts to get interesting. Eddie Cantrow is obviously (but only implicitly) Jewish, and his soon-to-be cuckolded wife Lila is a statuesque and stunning-looking blond non-Jew with a similarity to the young Cybill Shepherd – so unlike the unattractive (and Jewish) Lila of the original. Once they are married, Lila does prove to have all sorts of gross personal behaviour quirks (some of which, in classic Farrelly form, can’t even be described in a family newspaper such as this one) which immediately bother the uptight Eddie.
When they arrive at their Mexican honeymoon resort, Lila (like the original film) gets a terrible case of sunburn, giving Eddie too much time on his hands, and the opportunity to fall in love with Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a – get this – dark-haired beauty and high school lacrosse coach from Mississippi. The relationships with Lila and Miranda follow a reasonably predictable but frequently hilarious course, with abundant misunderstandings and physical pratfalls of which Stiller is a master. Here, of course, is the rub: Miranda and her very southern American family come across as classic American Protestants, so this version of The Heartbreak Kid has moved from a commentary on Jewish assimilation to a reasonably straightforward comedy of male attraction to “the other”, all of them non-Jewish.
Ben Stiller gives the performance we expect; he easily plays the driven, anxious, modern Jewish male, but without stretching his acting range. The women are all excellent foils for his energetic style, particularly Malin Akerman who shows a physicality that matches Stiller’s. There are a range of minor characters of varying success: I could have done without the sleazy Mexican hotel employee appears to have walked right out of an Adam Sandler movie.
Through most of the film, the Farrelly brothers pull their emotional punches, including a final twist that left me flat. Despite its R rating, this is a film for adolescent males of all ages; the perspective is thoroughly male and the women are there mostly to confuse, titillate and otherwise bother the menfolk.