Broken 'heart'

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THE PLANK OCTOBER 9, 2007

Broken 'heart'

Is the Farrelly brothers' remake of The Heartbreak Kid supposed to be a romantic comedy? A black comedy? A sex farce? All of the above? I'm not sure, and I fear neither are they. The 1972 original, directed by Elaine May, was a dark drollery, understated and not infrequently cruel, about a man (Charles Grodin) who dumps his unattractive Jewish wife (May's own daughter, Jeannie Berlin) in the middle of their honeymoon in order to pursue a blonde, Midwestern goddess (Cybill Shepherd).

The Farrellys, however, don't do understated and don't do cruel. And so, in addition to raunching the story up considerably, they (with the help of screenwriters Scot Armstrong and Leslie Dixon) try to make it sweet, or at least less caustic. Now it's the wife (Malin Akerman) who's a blonde bombshell--though the movie still can't resist a joke about how she will eventually come to resemble her fat, hideous mother. In place of Grodin's monstrous narcissist, we have Ben Stiller playing a more accidental jackass, a guy who stumbled into marriage under false pretenses. And substituting for Shepherd's happy homewrecker, we get Michelle Monaghan who, since her breakout performance in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has been asked, first in M:i:III and now here, to telegraph that she is a Perfect Sweetheart in otherwise underwritten roles.

It doesn't work. Though there are a handful of funny gags along the way, the plot is bent completely out of shape. In an effort to make the wife less an object of ridicule (the original version of the film was widely, and not implausibly, accused of ethnic self-loathing), she is not only made more comely but, for a time at least, more likable as well. Rather than begin with the ill-omened wedding, the Farrellys spend considerable time on Stiller and Akerman's romantic courtship. As a result, not only does his later treatment of her seem arguably more rather than less cruel, we actually spend a greater amount of time watching him fall in love with the girl he's going to dump than with the one who is (theoretically) his true soul mate.

Such missteps are frequent. The movie has the requisite gross-outs (a joke about queefing--if you don't know what this is, you probably don't want to), titillations (a "kitty" ring, a potty-mouthed dad played by Jerry Stiller), and regional putdowns (Mississippians who consider Ruby Tuesday's a "classy" joint), but few have more than a peripheral connection to the plot. (Compare this with the earlier, happier Farrelly-Stiller collaboration, There's Something About Mary, which got considerable comic mileage out of the concept of competing stalkers.) A movie about a man who dumps his wife during their honeymoon to pursue another woman ought to be edgy; in the Farrellys' hands it's mostly just flabby, a tale that's sheepish about its own mean-spiritedness.

--Christopher Orr

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