by Jay Seaver
There's a shortage of films like "A New Leaf" today, ones that are broad, absurd, and silly, but also refined in their way. These days, it's the other way around - broad comedies will go for anything, but figure it's okay so long as they tug at your heartstrings and impress you with their sincerity, rather than make the grudging allowance to sentiment that writer/director/co-star Elaine May makes here.Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has been a spendthrift his entire idle adult life, spending two hundred thousand dollars a year when his trust fund only generates about ninety thousand. Now, he's broke, although his butler Harold (George Rose), immediately after giving his notice, says that there is one time-honored solution - marry into wealth. Due to some conditions laid down by Harry's uncle Harry (James Coco), it must be done within six weeks lest Henry lose everything, which seems hopeless as a month passes. Then Henry meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May) - a mousy, clumsy, unrefined professor of botany with no need of the millions her family left her. She is easy to sweep off her feet, but the union is a perilous one - Henrietta comes with a Andy McPherson (Jack Weston), a lawyer whose entire practice has been managing the Lowell estate, and Mrs. Traggert (Doris Roberts), a housekeeper who runs a rather loose household; Henry, meanwhile, feels he'd be better off as a widower than a husband.
"When a middle-aged trust fund baby's mind turns to marriage."
The Henry Graham model of rich buffoon is all but extinct in America, and likely endangered even in Britain. That's sad, because to watch Matthau in this film's opening act is to feast from a smorgasbord of tomfoolery: We start with a bit of banter that invites mockery with open arms, follow it up with Henry's accountant (William Redfield) pounding his head against Henry's obliviousness before delivering a tongue-lashing that only gets funnier as the distance between his even tone and his contemptuous words,grows, and chase it down with a laugh at Matthau's body language as he bids the beloved accouterments of his wealth a sad adieu. And that's before desperation brings a wily cunning to the character. It's an utterly delightful performance by Walter Matthau, as he plays his his loose, lanky frame and expressive face against his character's snobbish propriety. He's terrific whether playing silly or sophisticated.
Elaine May writes herself a role that complements Matthau perfectly, small, innocent, and quiet in contrast to Matthau's Henry. She's in many ways just as ridiculous as he starts out, sheltered and isolated from the real world in a different way. May plays her as childish in many ways, on the line between where one wants to protect her and wishes she would grow up. It's a neat trick, being just on the border of being aggravating, and May uses all her jobs - as director, screenwriter, and co-star - to push Matthau from being the silly one to the straight man, and maybe, just maybe, give the movie a heart.
Amazingly, it may be an accidental one; an hour and a substantial subplot were excised before the film's 1971 release (and the footage is lost; they didn't necessarily save that stuff forty years ago). What's left is a movie that delivers a constant stream of laughs large and small, mostly working dry humor with the occasional broad detour. Not every joke will work for everyone - and indeed, May's sense of humor may be too offbeat for some. Every member of the cast has something funny to do, from the butler to the bear."A New Leaf" isn't currently available on home video in America, which is a shame; it's May's first film as a director, and a pitch-perfect performance by one of the twentieth century's funniest and most talented actors. If it pops up at a university or repertory theater near you, buy a ticket; it's worth it.
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originally posted: 11/18/10 23:08:19