Ben Stiller Loses Heart

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Zade Rosenthal / Dreamworks

Ben Stiller and Malin Akerman in the Dreamworks film The Heartbreak Kid.

Here's a surefire idea: a reteaming of Ben Stiller, Hollywood's biggest international comedy star, with Peter and Bobby Farrelly, writer-directors of cheerfully gross comedies. You probably loved There's Something About Mary, where Stiller fell in love with giggly blond Cameron Diaz and won her by fighting off a platoon of suitors and surviving a slew of acute embarrassments (the zipper, the hair gel, the dog). Now here's The Heartbreak Kid, in which Stiller falls for and weds a Diaz-type blond (Malin Akerman) only to discover, on his honeymoon, he's married the Woman from Hell — and that, if only he can ditch the bitch, a more suitable mate is available. Can't-miss romantic farce, based on a famous 1972 Neil Simon comedy. What could go wrong?

Quite a bit, actually.

Stiller's Eddie is a sad-sack bachelor who's bullied by just about everyone — his unrelentingly randy dad (Jerry Stiller), his henpecked best friend (Rob Corddry), a couple of obnoxious 10-year-olds at the wedding of his former girlfriend — into finding a suitable mate. Lila (Akerman), whom he meets at a mugging, seems the perfect solution to what other people think is his problem. She's friendly, pretty and has a job in environmental research. All right, she won't have sex with him until after they're married, but surely that'll be a consummation worth waiting for.

Connubial blisters form right after the ceremony, on the newlyweds' drive from San Francisco down to a Mexican resort. Lila knows the words to every song on the radio and brays them at peak pitch. (Could Eddie not have tuned in to something more soothing, like Rush Limbaugh?) In bed, Lila's lovemaking is suspiciously professional: her moves include the Inverted Corkscrew, the Swedish helicopter and the Jackhammer, and she's given to screaming, "F--- me like a black guy, Eddie!" (On the plus side, she got his name right.) By the time Lila has disregarded Eddie's warnings about the strong Mexican sun, stayed too long on the beach and picked up a case of sunstroke, he's ready to leave her.

By now he's met Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), who's all the things Lila isn't: brunette, natural and unmarried. Eddie is warmed by her sporty friendliness, especially in contrast to the harridan convalescing in his hotel bedroom. He even likes most of her family, who come to the resort each year. As Eddie and Miranda fall in love, he never quite gets around to explaining he's on his honeymoon. But when the truth is revealed, he declares his fidelity, telling her folks, "From the second I fell in love with Miranda, I have not once cheated on her with my wife."

I feel as if I've betrayed my disappointment with The Heartbreak Kid by making it sound vaguely amusing. The movie has its moments, like Lila's ring tone (the Wicked Witch broomstick theme from The Wizard of Oz), and Corddry's exasperated description of his secret for a happy marriage ("Sit back, relax and wait for the sweet embrace of death"). I also appreciated Eddie's flailing argument for dumping his bride for another woman. "The heart wants what it wants," he says, quoting Woody Allen's remark to Walter Isaacson of TIME during the 1992 scandal involving the filmmaker's affair with his stepdaughter Soon-Yi.

But if The Heartbreak Kid doesn't go totally wrong, its big problem is that doesn't really go anywhere. It just sort of lies there, like dumb Lila on the beach, waiting to turn gold. It wants to rekindle the Something About Mary spirit, or perhaps it hopes to twist it into an instructively acerbic fable about answered prayers. But, for all the typically Farrelly gross-out gags (beware the pubic hair scene), it hasn't the nerve either to brand Eddie as an unethical creep or salute his indefatigably amoral ambition to proceed directly from first wife to trophy wife.

The spectacle is especially debilitating because the movie was already made right the first time, when Simon wrote the screenplay from a Bruce Jay Friedman story. The director was Elaine May, who previously had been Mike Nichols' partner in the '50s' most renowned comedy improv duo.

The original movie, with Charles Grodin as the heartbreaker (here called Lenny), Jeannie Berlin as Lila and Cybill Shepherd as the adored Kelly, was a more direct parable of ambition for mobility — upward mobility. Lenny and Lila were identifiably Jewish, including the crushed glass at the wedding and the honeymoon at a Miami Beach hotel. Lila's worst crimes are eating candy bars in bed and whining, which is understandable, considering that her husband has abandoned her three days into their marriage. Kelly is the blond shiksa dreamgirl (closer to the remake's Lila than to the fair-haired Miranda), whose family is moving out of the Miami Beach hotel because it has "the wrong element" (Jewish) and into a posh social club.

Two other differences: Lenny admits from the start that he's on his honeymoon, and Kelly entertains his advances but doesn't encourage them. He jettisons Lila without a sensible hope of corralling romantic longing and ruthless ambition, then spends the rest of the movie trying to persuade Kelly and his starchy father (Eddie Albert) that he's the right guy for her. The movie echoes The Graduate, directed by Nichols, which set up a tawdry situation involving a sexually ambitious young man, then asked for sympathy for the guy because... because he's the main character. May used her gifted actors as creatures who were constantly forfeiting, then winning back, the audience's affections. She created a gritty-looking comedy with a Cassavetesian sense of improvisation that wants to underline life's messiness.

No, I'm not making the graybeard argument that every remake is a desecration of the original. (David Cronenberg's 1986 take on The Fly, to name just one, is a stand-alone masterpiece.) But it'd be nice if the 2007 Heartbreak Kid had some idea of the moral stakes involved, instead of playing everything for no-brain farce.

Before marrying Lila, Eddie's only reservation about her was that she lacked a sense of comedy. His father bellowed, "Funny's a male gene, idiot." Actually, that is funny, when you consider that the May-directed Heartbreak Kid has it all over the new version in humor, perspective and boffo laffs. Maybe Eddie should have hooked up with Sarah Silverman. Dad might have approved too: a nice Jewish girl.