In outline form, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Modern Romance (1981) would best be described as romantic comedies. They have the right structure, working their way through humorous incidents to the ultimate resolution of a wedding. But as these movies actually unfold, they do much more than put a dark or cynical twist on that hokey formula. They quickly reveal themselves to be a frontal assault on the whole idea of romantic love, particularly as it’s been peddled over the years by Hollywood. The main characters in these stories don’t seek anything pure or transcendent. What passion they show is in fact unvarnished neediness, a masochistic inability to stop doing the thing that makes them miserable. We might go further and call these movies anti-comedic, as well, with their patient observational filmmaking that prizes slow emotional burns over joke-flinging. But in this respect they’re merely unconventional. The humor is definitely there, provided one is willing to sit with some naturalistic pain and confusion to get to it.
Adapted by Neil Simon from Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan,” The Heartbreak Kid was the second film directed by Elaine May, a key figure in American comedy since the late 1950s. When the film begins, Lenny (Charles Grodin) marries Lila (Jeannie Berlin) in New York City. They then proceed to drive down the coast toward Miami for the honeymoon. What could at first pass for normal newlywed awkwardness between them steadily worsens with each stop along the way. Grodin’s performance leaves the distinct impression of someone who made his decision impulsively, without thinking much at all about what marriage means. Thus, Lila’s refrain about living with each other for the next “forty or fifty years” seems to stun him. Matters reach a breaking point when Lenny lies down at the beach and meets another woman named Kelly (Cybill Shepherd). Apparently addled by the oppressive Miami sun (the same sun that had badly burned Lila, confining her to the hotel room, and the same sun out of which Kelly first appears like an uncanny blonde angel), Lenny quickly begins to obsess over a tortuous and morally bankrupt scheme; namely, to dump his new bride and marry this other woman.
Plotwise, Modern Romance (written by Albert Brooks, its director, with Monica Johnson) is the inverse of The Heartbreak Kid. No triangle here: the story begins with a breakup between Robert (played by Brooks) and Mary (Kathryn Harrold) and from there explores the simple question of whether they’ll get back together or not. The film follows the emotional journey of Robert with uncomfortable intimacy, as he seesaws violently between the desire to start fresh (picking a name from his Rolodex at random to ask someone out, telling employees at various stores that he just broke up with someone and is trying to start new habits) and an increasing conviction that he made a mistake and should beg Mary to take him back. The problem — one of the problems — as revealed in the opening breakup scene is that Robert doubts Mary’s fidelity to him, and these doubts will fester even as the two of them attempt to work things out. On the page, Robert is the classic lovable neurotic, constantly talking himself out of the innocent or charitable reading of a situation. As Brooks films and performs him, though, he is every bit as extreme as Grodin’s Lenny, sabotaging his own happiness and threatening the same for everyone in his path.
These are bad guys, the kind of self-absorbed manipulators who can do so much damage at both small and large scales. May and Brooks succeed artistically by taking them seriously without lionizing them as “troubled geniuses” or doing anything to emphasize how compelling they are. As in all good comedy, the characters are just caricatures of highly recognizable traits. Lenny, a preternaturally confident improviser, can easily dress up his own cowardice and sense of entitlement as, respectively, self-sacrifice and all-American determination. Robert’s imagination is more punitive, leading him to lash out at potential suitors for Mary even after the breakup. His anger and remorse bounce off each other the hardest one night while he’s under the influence of Quaaludes, but even with a relatively clear head he performs a kind of elaborate dance that keeps getting him closer to Mary even while appearing to do the opposite. Robert lies to people too, though his fibs are more of the “I’ll call you right back” variety, not the three-act tall tales Lenny concocts on the spot to explain his absences to Lila. In both cases, though, the self-sabotage inherent in each choice is never less than obvious.
To an audience mostly familiar with twenty-first century comedy, the style of The Heartbreak Kid and Modern Romance will appear very strange. The slowness with which they develop their gags and situations was unusual for the time, as well. The emphasis on keeping the jokes coming and making them land hard just isn’t there. Instead, the focus is on character development, making sure the people onscreen come across as believable rather than falling into easy stereotypes. This choice is often reflected in the pace of cutting. Perhaps the signature scene in The Heartbreak Kid is a four-and-a-half minute single take in which four people are tightly framed around a restaurant table. Lenny makes the traditional pitch to Kelly’s father (played by Eddie Albert) in the foreground as Kelly and her mother (Audra Lindley) silently listen. The humor is mostly to be found in the reactions: the bubbling agitation of the father, the polite shock of the mother, the alternating amusement and embarrassment of Kelly herself. Similarly, the big set piece in Modern Romance is a twelve-minute scene that consists of just that many shots. This time, it’s a one-man show, with Robert puttering around his house as the Quaaludes kick in. For most of the scene’s shambling duration, it’s not very funny, but it’s setting up everything to follow.
The subject of these films is the irrationality and hollowness of romantic pursuits. Lenny works hard to get himself out of one marriage, only to turn around and work twice as hard to get into another one, over the very reasonable objections of the future in-laws. Not once does he stop to think that disillusionment may come around on the second try as it did on the first. Appropriately, May’s final shot shows him sitting alone, with whatever itch he’s been feeling throughout the film’s running time still clearly not soothed. At the end of Modern Romance, Robert and Mary are together again, after a fight in which they seem to have honestly worked through some of their issues. Mostly, though, their magnetic attraction to each other defies common sense, and as Brooks’s closing title cards shrewdly indicate, the battle will continue to some vanishing point in the future. In both of these films, the blissful romantic comedy ending is twisted into something stranger and arguably more compelling: two people condemned to happiness.