You’ve got to hand it to Ben Stiller: He never looks like he’s faking his hissy-fit anxiety attacks — those private neurotic steam explosions that are the result of his trying to be a nice guy in a not-nice world. In The Heartbreak Kid, the Farrelly brothers’ scrappy, hit-or-miss, not-as-bad-as-you’ve-heard remake of the 1972 minor classic, Stiller, as Eddie Cantrow, works that tension, and he’s got a few truly funny moments, like when he finally lets loose at the mariachi band that keeps dropping by at just the wrong instant during his honeymoon. The difference between 1972 and 2007 is that Charles Grodin, in the original Heartbreak Kid, was a cuter Woody Allen in shag-carpet sideburns who slithered out of his marriage to chase the hot blond shiksa of his dreams (message: The heart wants what it wants — and so do other body parts). Whereas Stiller starts off marrying the hot blond shiksa of his dreams (or so he thinks). That makes this retread a cautionary sequel.
The early scenes are promising, since Malin Akerman, as the honey-trap bride Lila, walks a thin line between adorability and fatale insanity. Singing songs in the car, she’s almost charming (at least, until she gets to ”The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and there’s an uproarious bedroom sequence in which this born-again believer in abstinence turns into a hellcat who begs Eddie to ”jackhammer” her, then issues a command so lewd I won’t even write it with dashed words. Of course, she’s also a duplicitous former-coke-addict harpie who blasts half-eaten food out of her deviated septum. So when Eddie, on their honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas, meets Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), a hottie with gorgeous cat’s eyes who carries the added enticement of being entirely sane, he’s eager to upgrade, to exchange his big mistake for the superior model.
In the original Heartbreak Kid, though, Grodin wasn’t just ditching his wife. He was caught in a do-or-die attempt to overturn his Nice Jewish Boy karma, and so he scrambled and lied — oh, did he lie. (Brilliantly. Sociopathically. With such detail.) In the remake, the choice is so easy and obvious for Eddie that he has no guilt about it. And a Heartbreak Kid without guilt is a little like Portnoy without his complaint. This isn’t a squirmy farce poised on the edge of pain; it’s just a situation, a hat rack for gags. The Farrellys haven’t lost their dirty-boy spirits. They spend several scenes setting up a joke that involves a jellyfish, a decorative body ring, and an improvised act of medical cleansing; for my money, it’s more cathartically hilarious than the hair-gel moment in There’s Something About Mary. But there aren’t many of those highs. Watching the first Heartbreak Kid again, I saw how much it gained from the no-frills lighting and pacing of early-’70s Hollywood style. Grodin always seems like a real guy, whereas Stiller, even working it, is just the designated loser-clown of the megaplex era. He’s too harmless to break any hearts. B-