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The Heartbreak Kid   C

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly
Writers: Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Kevin Barnett (based on the screenplay by Neil Simon and a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Jerry Stiller, Rob Corddry, Carlos Mencia, Scott Wilson, Danny McBride, Polly Holliday.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Heartbreak Kid is supposed to be a "return to form" for the Farrelly brothers -- reprising the R-rated raunchiness of their 1990s heyday rather than their gentler films of recent years. I find this odd because some of those gentler films -- most notably 2003's Stuck on You -- rank among their best. More troublesome is the fact that The Heartbreak Kid represents less a return to form than a worn regurgitation of past success. An all-too-familiar pattern quickly settles over it, as perennial straight man Ben Stiller suffers unspeakable (and ingeniously sickening) humiliation in his search for true love. It works fitfully here -- with a smattering of big jokes and the odd moment of "they did not just do that" shock -- but certain vital elements are missing this time around.

For starters, Stiller's nice guy is a lot less nice than they would have us believe. He plays Eddie Cantrow, the owner of a San Francisco sporting goods store, who receives unconscionable amounts of grief from friends and family because he can't find the right girl. Fellow singles can certainly relate to his exasperation, and the early scenes (in which he must endure smug chides from married friends and sit ignominiously at the kiddie table during a wedding reception) suggest that the Farrellys are ready to stick it to the time-honored fallacy that marriage equals happiness.

There's just one problem: Eddie is essentially the architect of his own destruction. He soon falls into the sad cliché of the guy who can't commit, which the script compounds rather than sending up the way it should. Instead of focusing on unreasonable social expectations of marital bliss, it becomes a shopworn lecture on how unattached men simply can't grow up. When he meets Lila (Malin Akerman), a marine biologist who may be The One, he promptly reverses his ways and marries her after only a couple of months of dating. The bill comes due at the honeymoon, when Lila morphs into a nightmare of clingy imbecility that turns their Mexican resort retreat into a living hell for him. That's when the real love of his life shows up in the form of Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a college lacrosse coach vacationing with her family, whose instant chemistry with Eddie prompts the wacky crisis upon which the film is based. How can he woo the woman he was destined for when a mistake with a wedding band is waiting back in the hotel room?

And herein lies the film's central failing. There are ways out of such a dilemma. Sensible ways. Reasonable ways. Ways that require nothing more than a little forthright maturity, which a surprising number of single guys possess. But if Eddie did that, there would be no movie. So he somersaults back and forth between fun outings with Miranda and hasty excuses to the increasingly hideous Lila -- lying to both of them while desperately searching for an agreeable solution. In the process, he undermines the implied message that singledom is preferable to a bad relationship. Instead, singledom apparently causes bad relationships, since the unattached clearly can't get their shit together enough to handle basic responsibilities. We get some decent guffaws in return for such doggerel (mostly at the expense of the fearlessly game Akerman), but also lose any remaining good will for Eddie. Though his deceit may be well-meaning, it's also self-serving... and descends into flat-out repugnancy more than once. How we are expected to sympathize with a man who acts so inappropriately is a mystery the film never answers.

And Eddie isn't the only character who proves difficult to relate to. With the exception of Monaghan's Miranda, no one here retains the slightest shred of compassion. Not Lila, nor Eddie's father (Jerry Stiller), nor the gaggle of grotesque supporting characters who exist here solely to heap torment upon Stiller's hapless would-be Romeo. Their nastiness is particularly disappointing considering the Farrellys' traditional affiliation for outsiders. Here, they exist as little more than circus freaks, designed to provoke a gut response rather than examine our own all-too-human failings. As a result, the humor takes on a unnecessarily cruel tone... and when the trend extends to the Mexicans working in and around the resort, charges of racism become difficult to dismiss.

That's not to say that The Heartbreak Kid lacks appreciable humor. The Farrellys can still deliver a sucker punch like nobody's business and their instinctive grasp of the truly transgressive keeps things from sinking into lowest common denominator territory. I won't divulge the details of the best moments, but they're worthy (if that's the word) of the filmmakers' highlights reel. Yet without any illumination behind them, The Heartbreak Kid simply can't sell us the way their earlier films could. Those movies always had a big heart, even at their most outrageous. It was their secret weapon, the thing that made them hum -- and if the Farrellys really wanted to return to There's Something About Mary form, then they shouldn't have discarded as much of it as they do here. The Heartbreak Kid turns too cold too quickly to keep the laughs from ringing hollow... which ultimately disrupts its only appreciable purpose.

Review published 10.05.2007.

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