The Heartbreak Kid presents a hollow shell of the Farrelly Brothers I know. The elements they cobble together in this half-hearted remake are all familiar from their prior efforts, but something is palpably missing. I suspect many will say that what’s missing is “heart,” but a better word for it is “glee” — these are not the giddily subversive Farrellys we’re used to. The last thing I expected was for these masters of the form to go on autopilot, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened here. I hate to say it (no, really: I hate to say it), but they’re slumming.
I think back to Fever Pitch and the underrated Stuck on You, the Brothers’ last two films and the ones that cemented them, in my mind, as two of the brightest stars in American comedy. It was exciting to watch them take gimmicky plots and render them thoughtful and surprising, populate them with characters who come alive and demand attention, insert touching little details and sudden truths. They’re high-concept, mainstream Hollywood films — a one-sentence logline can provide a theoretically complete description of both — but the Farrellys transformed them in the execution.
Admittedly, the goal here was not to come up with anything remotely as tender and sweet as those outings. Ben Stiller’s Eddie is a typical ragtag Stiller protagonist — all charming awkwardness and rampant insecurity; a typical Farrelly protagonist, really — but he’s surrounded by mostly loathsome types. Eddie’s father (Jerry Stiller) encourages his perennially single and uncommitted son to go out and “crush more pussy”; his best friend (Rob Corddry) has deluded himself into living by the mantra “happy wife, happy life”; we eventually meet a character played by Carlos Mencia (ABORT! ABORT!). And then there’s Eddie’s Mrs. Wrong (Malin Akerman), who turns out to be a horrorshow of truly epic proportions. It’s hardly subtle screenwriting (wait ’till you see the extended montage of Eddie trying to sneak across the Mexican border), and the Farrellys don’t really work to add the human touches that has made their recent work so remarkable.
Fine, I think, and consider their earlier, markedly different hits — the likes of There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin. Unabashedly raunchy, heavily dependent on timing and momentum, and willing to do anything for a laugh, those films are certainly closer to what we have here. And they’re nothing to sneeze at, either; who can forget the riotous “hair gel” sequence from Mary, or the artificial hand rolling down the bowling lane in Kingpin?
Indeed, The Heartbreak Kid leans hard on the sort of manic, outrageous set pieces that originally made the Farrellys a household name. But this time they’re both less funny and less relevant to the film than their predecessors. The main one, involving an unconventional remedy for a jellyfish sting, feels arbitrary and out of place; the audience seemed more stunned than in stitches. It goes too far, not because it’s too gross or silly but because it’s not set up properly and doesn’t really go anywhere. Some of their other early fascinations — e.g. villains signified by disgusting boils on their faces and obscure bodily functions — also make largely perfunctory appearances. But there’s no intensity, no snowballing comic juggernaut that eventually makes you laugh despite yourself. At points it’s frankly kind of embarrassing.
If The Heartbreak Kid is worth seeing at all, it’s for the funny, loose first act, which does not at all foreshadow the heavy-handed insanity that soon follows. The trailers prominently feature a scene where Eddie, a bachelor at a wedding, has to sit at the “singles table” with occupants ranging from age 5 to 14 or thereabouts. It’s a funny gag, but even funnier is a conversation in which he tries to prove that he’s a widower (he’s not) by answering five questions about his dead wife as fast as he can. It’s the sort of random, unassuming bit of hilarity that the Farrellys know how to do so well (remember Greg Kinnear’s TV show in Stuck on You, with his siamese twin lurking just out of frame?) that when the joke is later brought back as part of a huge, humiliating misunderstanding, I felt a little cheated. The Heartbreak Kid is, heartbreakingly, the Brothers using their tremendous talents for evil instead of good.