If you haven't seen The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May's 1972 adaptation of a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman (with a screenplay by Neil Simon), you're missing a minor classic, a study in Jewish male sexual anxiety that fits comfortably (which is to say nervously and neurotically) alongside Portnoy's Complaint and the early films of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky.
If you haven't seen The Heartbreak Kid, Peter and Bobby Farrelly's new update of that earlier picture, I'm jealous.
Don't get me wrong. I am not dogmatically opposed to remakes, and I've admired much of the Farrelly brothers' earlier work. At their best - in Shallow Hal or Kingpin, say - they show a rare ability to mix the nasty and the nice, to combine humor based in the grossness of the body and its functions with a sweet, humanistic spirit.
But that generosity seems to have abandoned them here. Their squeamish, childish fascination with bodily ickiness, when crossed with the iffy sexual politics of the original, yields a comic vision remarkable for its hysterical misogyny. It is not just that their hero, a San Francisco sporting-goods salesman named Eddie Cantrow, has some issues with women. These - narcissism, fear of commitment, a sentimental longing for the greener grass on the other side of the fence - are pretty standard among romantic-comedy bachelors. The problem is that, unlike May and Simon, the Farrellys have no interest in examining Eddie's psychology or his soul.
Maybe that's because, back in 1972, when Eddie was named Lenny and played by Charles Grodin, he actually had one. As impersonated by Ben Stiller, Eddie has only a collection of familiar, grating behaviors. Stiller possesses a gift for shifting quickly from discomfort to confrontation, a gift he has been happy to squander as his paychecks have grown. His feints and flinches have lost their spontaneity, and his aggression is without vitality.
THE HEARTBREAK KID
DIRECTED BY: PETER FARRELLY AND BOBBY FARRELLY
STARRING: BEN STILLER (EDDIE), MICHELLE MONAGHAN (MIRANDA), MALIN AKERMAN (LILA), JERRY STILLER (DOC), ROB CORDDRY (MAC), CARLOS MENCIA (UNCLE TITO), SCOTT WILSON (BOO), DANNY MCBRIDE (MARTIN)
RUNNING TIME: 115 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
Eddie, still single at 40, cutely meets Lila (Malin Akerman), a leggy blonde with a passing resemblance to Cameron Diaz, Stiller's co-star in the Farrellys' There's Something About Mary. Six weeks after meeting, Eddie and Lila are married and on their way to a honeymoon in Mexico, at which point Eddie starts to see aspects of his new wife's personality that had escaped his notice before. She likes to sing along with the radio. She has a deviated septum. Worst of all, she is uninhibited and adventurous in bed. ("What's the missionary position?" she asks.) What a nightmare!
The decision to make the story pivot on Lila's emerging monstrousness, rather than on Eddie's indecision, is a sign of the film's fundamental cowardice. Once Lila is badly sunburned and covered with scabs and blisters, and once she has revealed herself to be stupid and dishonest - well, no wonder Eddie falls for Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), who is vacationing in Cabo with some members of her extended family.
Akerman, for all the humiliation she endures, is a nimble and charming comic actress. Monaghan may be as well, but she never gets the chance to show it because her job is to incarnate an ideal of obliging loveliness that rules out having an actual personality. Wives have those, which means they are scary, dumb sexual freaks like Lila - she doesn't trim her pubic hair! she thinks "inhabitate" is a word! - or scary, sexless control freaks, like the one who henpecks Eddie's best pal, Mac.