In the recent comedy Along Came Polly, Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) endures a groom’s most dreaded nightmare. No sooner have he and his new bride, Lisa (Debra Messing), touched down for a St. Barts getaway then he finds her coupling noisily with a well-muscled scuba instructor. Poor Reuben—his marriage is just a few days old and already the honeymoon, quite literally, is over. But does this shocking dissolution send him into a fog of despondency and regret? Yes—for a couple of scenes at least. Then he bumps into Polly, the kooky, free-spirited gal of the film’s title. As fate would have it, she’s Reuben’s true soul mate. Being cuckolded on his honeymoon, it turns out, was the best thing that ever happened to him.
In the rough contours of its plot, Along Came Polly is the most recent example of a subgenre that’s proliferated of late: what might be called the “Thank you for saving me from my evil hag of a fiancee” movie. Of course, the notion of a narrowly avoided marital-mismatch isn’t new; in fact, it’s long been a staple of romantic comedies. But films like A Guy Thing (2003), Saving Silverman (2001), and Very Bad Things (1998) all revise this hoary plotline in a crucial way. These aren’t comedies about characters being saved from marriage to the wrong person. They’re comedies about characters being saved from marriage itself. They play to a distinctly modern anxiety: that while fairy-tale love may still be desirable, a wedding no longer counts as a happy ending. Quite the opposite—for the guy, at least, the wedding marks the end of being happy.
In A Guy Thing, Jason Lee barely escapes the brittle and controlling Selma Blair, his reprieve coming in the form of a hula-dancing tiki girl (Julia Stiles). In Saving Silverman, Jack Black and Steve Zahn conspire to wrest their buddy, Jason Biggs, from a shrill psychologist (Amanda Peet) with whom he’s fallen deeply in love. (Or thinks he has, anyway; they know better, having discovered he’s been brainwashed by her sneaky, head-shrinker voodoo.) In School of Rock (2003), rock ’n’ roll helps Jack Black’s browbeaten roommate, Ned (Mike White), finally snip the strings of his hectoring girlfriend (Sarah Silverman). And in the very distasteful Very Bad Things (1998), even the accidental murder of a prostitute at a stag party has one apparent upside: It exposes Jon Favreau’s betrothed, Cameron Diaz, as a screeching, murderous bridezilla-to-be *.
The evil fiancees in these movies are so uniform, and so easy to spot, that it’s a wonder any guy proposed to them in the first place. They come clad in pearl earrings and prim sweater sets, the embodiments of asphyxiating domesticity. They’re armed with detailed life plans and bags full of V-neck sweaters, pre-sized for their new hubby. (The V-neck sweater apparently being a universal symbol of emasculation.) They trash the bachelor’s treasured mementos, criticize his habits, and ostracize his old gang of friends—all of which is presented as a pre-wedding hazing ritual meant to soften him up for a lifetime of subjugation.
Then, on the eve of his nuptials, the bachelor collides with another, more appealing woman. She appears out of nowhere—a kind of deus sex machina. Tellingly, though, this woman isn’t typically a stranger; instead, she’s a rediscovered classmate or childhood crush. What better rescuer for a guy who’s staring down adulthood than a fondly remembered sweetheart from his schoolboy days? (In the case of School of Rock, the savior isn’t a woman, it’s good old adolescent rock ’n’ roll itself.) Unlike the domineering fiancee, the free-spirited gal is laid-back and undemanding. She doesn’t set out to change the bachelor’s habits; in fact, she finds them charming. Best of all, she’s in no rush to get married; that’s what makes her a free spirit. Then again, she was never meant to be seen as an alternate spouse. She’s more like a getaway driver for a bachelor fleeing the church.
In this respect, the evil-fiancee movie makes for a striking contrast to classic mismatch movies of yore, such as Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. (Cary Grant alone starred in about a half-dozen such films; it seems he was the hero all of America was fated to wed.) In those tales, a dashing figure also sweeps in to save the hero (or heroine) from marrying a dullard mate, sometimes swapping places with the deposed fiance, bodily, at the altar. Yet these films almost always end with a wedding, and they rarely question, let alone undermine, the institution of marriage itself.
At first glance, Along Came Polly might seem closer in spirit to those classic comedies than to the evil-fiancee films. At the opening of the film, Reuben marches happily into marriage, and his wife Lisa, while staid, is no shrieking harridan. Plus, she’s the one who cheats on him. But Along Came Polly is sly—it’s simply presenting a groom’s escapist fantasy disguised as his worst nightmare. Reuben’s cheatin’ wife, after all, hands him a get-out-of-marriage-free card. Who can blame him for skedaddling—especially given that, when he does, he happens to land in the arms of a gal without a single V-neck sweater in her closet.
Interestingly enough, the movie Polly most closely—and perhaps inadvertently—echoes is the 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid. That film, too, opens with a joyous Jewish wedding, between Lenny (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeannie Berlin). They too head off for a sunny honeymoon, this one in Miami Beach. But it’s Grodin, the groom, who has second thoughts—which only intensify when he spies the curvy silhouette of Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd).
This, of course, is the groom’s true nightmare: not that his bride will fall for another person just days after the wedding, but that he will. Unlike Reuben, Lenny isn’t granted a convenient pardon from his vows. Instead, he coldly ditches his wife to pursue this dream girl, which sends him tumbling into a series of cringe-inducing humiliations: He tails her to her chilly home state of Minnesota; he supplicates himself to her disapproving father (Eddie Albert). And when he finally wins her hand, he finds himself submerged in a stuffy WASP society just as stifling as the union and the wife he left behind.
The Heartbreak Kid ends as it begins: with a marriage. It leaves us with the image of Lenny in a tux at his second wedding, wistfully humming “Close to You,” a song he often sang with his first bride. Like the heroes of the evil-fiancee films, Lenny fled commitment by telling himself he’s chasing after love. This delusion makes a fool of him. He might take heart to know, however, that, 30 years later, his cinematic descendants are living out his fantasy in films like Along Came Polly—films that unironically celebrate the foolhardy illusions that The Heartbreak Kid so thoroughly lampooned.
Correction, Jan. 29, 2004: An earlier version of this article erroneously suggested that Jon Favreau’s character did not marry Cameron Diaz’s in Very Bad Things. In fact, he did marry her. (Return to the corrected sentence.)