The bride’s writhing in agony in the honeymoon suite, her back crackling with sunburn, but where’s the groom? Hold on, he’s down at the beach, busy meeting his one true soul mate and rethinking yesterday’s wedding vows. Is it too late for this former commitment-phobe to change his mind, break the ties that bind, and commit to yet another? Was F. Scott Fitzgerald right that there are no second acts in American life? Or are there nothing but second acts (see Jerry Springer, Oliver North, Arnold Schwarzenegger, et al)? This sturdy premise powers Elaine May’s well-regarded 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid but now gets reduced to televisual dimensions in this disappointing vulgarization directed (though not written) by the Farrelly brothers. Outwardly, this remake promises to reflect on winning second chances at love but inside pulses a sitcom brain focused on inexorably delivering the next laugh, even proceeding small screen-style in short segments shot with overabundant close-ups.
True to their reputation for collapsing taboos, the Farrellys have reliably injected hitherto verboten crudity into the cinematic bloodstream, though always cushioning dubious material in their trademark sweetness, whether in Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, or There’s Something About Mary. But this new version—call it the slacker flip-flop edition—subjects Neil Simon’s original script to ethnic cleansing, trading his New York Jews vacationing in Miami for whitebread California yuppies in Mexico, and replacing the blond shiksa dream girl from Minnesota with a simpatico brunette from Mississippi. This bland retooling of the material into a disposable date movie rings no improvements on the original (released back when both Farrellys were still buying Clearasil and praying they wouldn’t get drafted) while substantially coarsening the proceedings.
Instead of the poignantly rejected wife (acted into an Oscar nomination by Jeannie Berlin), the new script sketches her as a cartoon figure overloaded with sourly annoying traits: She’s subject to seasickness, bad at math, misuses vocabulary, has no money or real job, and even gets her husband’s name wrong, all while demanding rougher sex—and in more challenging positions than Edward (not Edmund) finds comfortable. Worst of all, “she doesn’t have a great sense of humor,” even though she gamely deploys her deviated septum in several jocular scenes centered on removing foreign objects from noses (including pain-reliever capsules, morsels of steak, and even a jalapeño pepper). To be sure, thanks to the efforts of all the players—including TV funnymen Rob Corddry (as a pitifully housebroken spouse) and Carlos Mencia (as a cheerfully profane Mexican stereotype who sports Marlon Brando’s old Viva Zapata! mustache)—there are definitely laughs to be had, from pop-up appearances by manic mariachis to the beleaguered hero’s embarrassing talks with his randy father (played for once by Stiller’s real-life pop, the 77-year-old Jerry Stiller) to a trippy evening in Cabo San Lucas “hittin’ the devil’s lettuce,” but none conveys the sunny innocence of the Farrellys at their best.
One vestige of the Farrellys’ barrel-of-monkeys approach survives in the film’s disdain for narrow individualism and devotion to celebrating the glory of community, welcoming even the battiest family members and grizzled beach bums into their generous embrace. As Rhode Island’s gift to Hollywood, the brothers uniquely attribute good intentions to all their characters, who find themselves thwarted only by misguided control freaks. Here, as the script labors to make its hero more conventionally likeable, it inescapably dilutes his driven nature. No matter how hard and smart Ben Stiller works, this engaging actor can’t find the emotional roots to ground his character in internally compelled missteps, not when the plot is presented as random instances of bad luck. Frantic slapstick and pointless misunderstandings finally undermine Heartbreak Kid until its multiple stabs at concocting a decisive new ending betray the awful truth that it has no idea where it’s going, even while it makes funny faces.