Remembering Charles Grodin, Whose ‘Heartbreak Kid’ Performance Was Both Charming and Cringe-Worthy

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There’s only one actor on earth who could sell a line like “There’s no deceit in the cauliflower,” and he passed away today.

It’s been said that “The Graduate” could have made Charles Grodin a star, had the actor only accepted the role that eventually went to Dustin Hoffman. Such “what ifs” are impossible to judge, but I like the way it actually worked out, with Grodin’s breakthrough (and best) performance coming five years later, as callow newlywed Lenny Cantrow, who meets his ideal mate at the most inopportune of times — on his honeymoon — in Elaine May’s “The Heartbreak Kid.”

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Before either of them became film directors, May and “The Graduate” helmer Mike Nichols were a hit comedy duo, and I’m fairly certain the two saw the same qualities in Grodin, who had a goofily handsome quality in his 30s that made him ideally suited to playing the endearing everyman.

But Grodin didn’t embody just any everyman. “The Heartbreak Kid” plays like one of those wince-inducing comedies we got in the early aughts — think “The Office” or pretty much anything mumblecore — 30-odd years before audiences were comfortable looking (and laughing) at such unflattering depictions of themselves.

Neil Simon’s script describes a nightmare situation: What if a callow young man married the wrong woman, and as soon as he made it to Miami Beach, stumbled across the girl of his dreams (Cybill Shepherd, playing a flirtatious Midwestern blonde)? Marriage doesn’t automatically tame most guys’ errant eyes, and for comic effect, “The Heartbreak Kid” collapses that period of buyer’s remorse to record time.

But May directed Grodin in such a way that the gender dynamics don’t necessarily favor the man’s dilemma. She also cast her own daughter, Jeannie Berlin, as Lenny’s heartbroken new wife, which is less a recipe for sympathy than a cruel and unusual trick, since she’s a miserably high-maintenance character, and audiences will likely want to divorce her even before the idea enters Lenny’s head.

Once the couple gets to Miami, while Lenny’s bride is recovering from a sunburn in the hotel room, he races to propose to the stunner he meets on the beach. Grodin makes us squirm not because his behavior is so reprehensible (of course it is) but because the actor finds what is relatable about the situation.

He’s like the most pathetic sort of salesman, desperately trying to upgrade his own fortunes. Hence the “This is a totally honest meal” spiel that gives us Grodin’s inimitable “cauliflower” line, as Lenny tries to convince his future father-in-law to go along with his self-serving plan. Anyone can see that that Lenny is deceiving himself (Eddie Albert earned an Oscar nomination for acknowledging as much, though Grodin deserved one as well), but he’s just so … earnest.

“The Heartbreak Kid” ends a lot like “The Graduate,” with the guy getting what he wants and the audience left wondering where things could possibly go from there. Still, there’s a kind of naivete to his shtick that makes it bearable, even if we know it won’t go well for the couple in the long run.

Grodin excelled at playing self-involved, but it was often in service of making his co-stars look better — see the park-bench banter between him and “The Lonely Guy” lead Steve Martin — which would make it the greatest kind of generosity. While most people would prefer not to acknowledge human weakness, Grodin made it possible to smile at how it looks on others.

We’d get other funhouse reflections of spinelessness and indecision in so many of his subsequent performances, from the skittish accountant Robert De Niro is hired to wrangle in “Midnight Run” to the stand-up dad in “Beethoven,” who eventually goes from tame family man to ferocious dog defender. Grodin was a fixture in movies for nearly half a century — hardly ever the leading man, but capable of quietly upstaging the star — and that gave multiple generations a chance to latch on to different aspects of his persona. But it’s worth tracking down “The Heartbreak Kid,” out of print on home video, but available in its entirety on YouTube.

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