“Elaine May directed it, Neil Simon wrote it, Bruce Jay Friedman conceived it.” That was how the movie studio marketed The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, not in terms of storyline, or cast, or any thematic elements, but as the product of three marquee names behind the camera. It was based on Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan” about a newlywed who, while on his honeymoon, gets romantically sidetracked by a beautiful girl who makes him rethink his very recent life decision. Simon was on fire commercially: The Last of the Red Hot Lovers was running on Broadway (and the film adaptation was released earlier in ’72), with The Sunshine Boys opening on stage, but the movie versions of his plays had been directed by Gene Saks and Arthur Hiller, and they were flat and workmanlike, elevated by their performers and Simon’s assured comic rhythms. People do love The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners, but there’s a creakiness about them. The Heartbreak Kid was different; it was darker, zippier, more surprising and offbeat. The jokes are still there, only without the rat-a-tat; some of the scenes have the loopy improvised tone of the best Mike Nichols and Elaine May routines. It’s one of the few Neil Simon-scripted films I can watch without wishing for considerably more of a modern directorial point of view (The Sunshine Boys has some wonderful moments, but boy, is it pokey and stagey).
Elaine May at that point had only directed one film, 1971’s A New Leaf, an amiable, sometimes inspired comedy that was radically edited by the studio and half-heartedly marketed, and Bruce Jay Friedman was known as a novelist and short-story writer (A Mother’s Kisses – the most painfully funny book about the Jewish Mother until Portnoy’s Complaint – and Far From the City of Class, among others), and playwright (Scuba Duba, Steambath). The Heartbreak Kid could have easily become a clash of sensibilities, but instead it was an early example of the comedy of discomfort, long scenes that make you squirm, elaborate set-pieces where Charles Grodin (the new groom) makes excuses to sneak off on Jeannie Berlin to spend time with Cybill Shepherd, a tantrum over pecan pie, Grodin trying to impress Shepherd’s Midwestern-WASP family with riffs on the honesty of the food at the dinner table (“There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in the cauliflower”). Simon’s writing has a looser vibe than usual, and May keeps the camera zeroed in on the layers of bemusement and disbelief as Grodin spins his escalating nonsense. From The Heartbreak Kid it’s a twisted line to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office (and to the Farrelly Brothers, who botched a Ben Stiller-starring remake, Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow).
What I found myself wishing for in Neil Simon’s work was the kind of nutty spritz he must have brought to the writers’ room when he was on Sid Caesar’s staff, a wildness and unpredictability. “Neil Simon was a clutch hitter,” Mel Brooks tweeted (that’s a phrase I never thought I’d type) when Simon passed away. “When we needed the punchline on Your Show of Shows he delivered.” I have no doubt. For pure throw-it-against-the-wall funniness, there’s 1978’s The Cheap Detective, which is pretty close to a movie-length Caesar sketch with Peter Falk doing a full-tilt Bogart homage. (It came the year after The Goodbye Girl, which was Simon as too-sentimental joke-machine.) And there’s a messy anarchy about his first film script, After the Fox (written with Cesare Zavattini, directed by Vittorio De Sica, starring Peter Sellers, music by Burt Bacharach).
Most of Simon’s on-screen work, regrettably, was done with directors who were asleep at the switch (not that material like Seems Like Old Times, Only When I Laugh and I Ought to Be in Pictures could have been elevated all that much), until he worked with Mike Nichols on Biloxi Blues. Maybe that assessment is ungenerous; maybe to really appreciate the crowd-pleasing talents of Neil Simon you had to have seen his plays in the ‘60s and ‘70s on Broadway and been delighted by his confident comic voice, honed — like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen and Norman Lear — in the first golden age of television comedy. And I would like to mention that I’d really love to see Betty White and Cloris Leachman in a production of The Sunshine Girls, so someone please make that happen.