The characters in May's movies are often a little bit dumb. They mean well, they have incredible courage - even the failed songwriters in Ishtar have breathtaking chutzpah - but they're dumb. They're looking so hard for satisfaction in their small lives that they are oblivious to the obvious landmines in front of them. Lenny Cantrow meets Kelly Corcoran on the beach while honeymooning with his new bride, and turns into a dervish of lies and excuses to meet Kelly on the side while his wife stays in their hotel room recovering from a sunburn. The humor comes from Lenny's recklessness. Even though he's doing a terrible thing to his new wife, we find ourselves rooting for him just because he's so determined.
The film was based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, with a punched up screenplay by Neil Simon. You can recognize Simon's jokes in a few scenes, but this never for a moment feels like a Neil Simon movie. It's so much smarter and more realistic, as if May took it over and remodeled it to her own specifications. When Simon wrote his memoirs many years later, he barely mentions this movie, as if he acknowledges that The Heartbreak Kid is far more May's work than his.
The film opens with Lenny (Charles Grodin) in New York preparing for a night out. Most of the early shots are from far away - we see him parking his car, locking up the sporting goods store where he works, combing his hair - so we get the impression that he's one of life's little guys. Lenny drives a tiny yellow sports car that he probably bought because it looked sporty, but it actually makes him look tiny and ineffective. He meets Lila (Jeannie Berlin) at a bar. We see a brief courtship - they seem to enjoy each other, she in particular adores him, although she won't have sex until they're married. We see some scenes from their wedding, a quiet affair performed in her Jewish parents' living room, and then the road trip for their Miami honeymoon begins.They sing a lot on the road, corny old tunes like "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah," and May perfectly captures the awkwardness of a new relationship. The spell is broken when Lenny tells Lila that she has a lousy voice. It's as if he's finally aware that he'll be hearing Lila's voice every day for, as she likes to say, "the next 40 or 50 years." He's revolted.
Lila's not a bad person. In a lesser movie she would be more comically horrible, but as played by Berlin, she's an attractive, warm woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve. True, she has a penchant for candy bars at 2:00 AM, and needs to be constantly told how wonderful she is, which grates on Lenny. When they finally reach Miami and she reveals her body in a bathing suit, she's sturdily built and even a bit sexy. It's too late, though, for Lenny has already met and flirted with a 20-year-old blond from Minnesota who is vacationing with her family. This is Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), the sort of nubile, flirtatious female that will demolish a dumb man's mind like a stick of lit dynamite placed under a bridge. Poor Lila never stood a chance.
There are many memorable moments: The growing look of disgust on Lenny's face as Lila plays with his chest hair; Lila nibbling on a candy bar so as to not smudge her lipstick; Lenny explaining to Kelly's parents that he's married but plans to end it soon, and the way he pretends to be a narcotics agent to intimidate a couple of Kelly's goonish college friends. And then there's Kelly's dad (Eddie Albert) threatening to kick Lenny's "ass over the Canadian border." Eddie Albert is so good in this movie - he's perhaps the only actor who can actually make his blood pressure rise on cue. He was nominated for an Oscar, deservedly so, as was Berlin.
Albert's role as Kelly's hostile father is important because we see Lenny through his eyes. Without Albert, we'd think of Lenny as a lovable, bumbling guy trying to get the girl of his dreams. He's so likable that we forget that he's an idiot. As Albert narrows his eyes in anger every time he sees Lenny, we're almost tempted to take Albert's side. Yet, we like Lenny. That's why this is a smart movie. We sympathize with everyone. As Kelly, Shepherd is electric. At first she seems like a typical spoiled girl who always gets what she wants, nibbling aimlessly on a pretzel while the men around her fuss and fight. When she reveals that she actually has feelings for Lenny, the movie shifts into a new gear. We can tell she's bored with her own existence, and is actually intrigued by Lenny's determination.