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A review of "A New Leaf" (1971)

The blurb for people who don't like to read reviews

A New Leaf is a fantastic romantic comedy that stands up to the test of time.  Forty years after its debut, it remains witty, incisive, and relevant.  Although it doesn't have any kind of mold-breaking or genre-busting plot elements, it implements its tropes wisely and grounds itself in two fantastic performances from Walter Matthau and Elaine May.  This is one of the best comedies in American history and it's downright criminal that we don't celebrate it more than we do.  I'm thinking it needs a theatrical re-release, paired with a double-disc Blu-Ray restoration.  Get on that, Criterion.

My Rating:  5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

Elaine May is a comic genius.  Take a quick read through her page on Wikipedia or her IMDb credits and you'll quickly see that she's had a profound influence on American comedy.  She's had a successful run as an actress and a writer, frequently with her longtime collaborator Mike Nichols.

Not to belittle Mr. Nichols's work - The Graduate is deservedly remembered as one of the greatest American movies of all time - but I suspect that May has always been the more talented half of that pairing.  Unfortunately, it seems like she has been mostly ignored for no real other reason except that a lot of people think women can't be funny.

May has only directed four movies, of which I have now seen three - all of them terrific.  Including Ishtar, the undeservedly-maligned movie that paradoxically remains her most easily available work.  (Streaming on Netflix right now, guys, and you can buy the Blu-Ray for under $15.)  Yet none of her movies made too much money, none of them have received the sort of painstaking "Masterpiece Edition" release they deserve, and there are no Elaine May box sets out there.  Even the Woody Allen movies that people think of as his worst still got the red carpet treatment.

So, now that I've got that little mini-rant out of the way, let's talk about A New Leaf.

This is simultaneously an important movie for me to write about and also a redundant review.  A New Leaf is an extraordinary movie, but ironically I think it's starting to become Elaine May's best-known work specifically because people are trying to champion it as an overlooked gem.  Here's a more professional review from just about a year ago that I found after about thirty seconds of Googling.  Amazon added it to their viewing library, so you can watch it for (basically) free if you're a Prime member.  And Olive Films re-released the movie on DVD not too long ago specifically because it was struggling in anonymity.

Meanwhile, The Heartbreak Kid is still generally a pain in the ass to find, but I already whined about that.

A New Leaf was May's directorial debut, released in 1971 on the heels of her success as a playwright.  It's often described as a "screwball" comedy, but I don't really like that term - it's a bit too broad and imprecise.  I'd say it's more accurate to call this one "Dark Comedy Lite."  It's a warm, pleasant, and inoffensive comedy about a world full of terrible people and one incredibly charming woman.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Walter Matthau plays as Henry Graham, a wealthy dude who has just recently spent his last dime.  The thought of bankruptcy terrifies him - in his own words, he has never done or had any ambition to "do anything but be rich."  His butler suggests that he marry a wealthy woman, but the effort of marriage seems an inconvenient hassle to Graham.

Until he gets the idea that he could just kill his wife and inherit her money.  So he sets out on a quest to charm, marry, and murder a socialite.

The target in question is Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a bookish, clumsy, unsophisticated botanist and professor who has inherited a vast fortune from her industrialist father.  Lowell is accident-prone, chipper, and oblivious to the world around her.  Her unstoppable cheer is an immediate foil to Graham's persistent cynicism and grouchiness.

But the two have fantastic chemistry - in no small part due to Graham's efforts to fake his way into her heart - and so they quickly schedule a wedding.  The marriage is discouraged by Henrietta's sleazy lawyer, Andy McPherson (Jack Weston), who has been embezzling her money and has been trying to seduce her for his own scheme.

Along the way, Henry essentially pulls a Pygmalion and tries to impart a sense of culture.  She picks up some new habits, but mainly just relies on Henry to guide her and watch her back.

They go on their honeymoon, where Henry plots Henrietta's murder while she studies plants, completely unaware of the dark plans surrounding her....

The Bit Wherein I Discuss the Alternate Version

May's original cut of this movie was 180 minutes long, but the studio cut it down to 100 minutes before they would allow it to be released.  Evidently this distressed May and she went on to distance herself from the "butchered" cut.

In this sense, maybe May actually isn't as much of a genius as I said earlier on - I can't imagine that I'd enjoy the movie at that length.  (A three hour comedy?!  Leaving aside issues of story structure and pacing, there is absolutely a physical limit to the amount of time you can spend laughing.)

On the other hand....

A three hour cut would certainly wrap up quite a few things that are left unfinished in the film.  The most obvious example would be the subplot of Andy McPherson and his gang of scammers that have been extorting money from Henrietta over the years.  The movie briefly establishes that there is a full household of "maids" and "wait staff" that watch over Henrietta's estate, but actually they're just thieves who have bullied their way into her money.  The idea is that they are paid extravagant salaries, of which they give a cut to Andy so that everybody can share in her wealth.

The scammers are all fired by Henry as soon as he gets a chance, and then we see them go to Andy's office to complain.  Andy panics... and then disappears.  Nothing else happens with or to him.

In the movie's finished form, this subplot basically just seems to serve as evidence that Henrietta is a helpless innocent who really needs Henry's intervention and guidance to become a stronger and more successful woman.  It presents her as naive and it frames Henry as a heroic Knight-like figure. It also adds a kind of nasty egalitarian flavor to the whole thing.  (Henry, a rich guy who abhors poverty, throws a bunch of lower-class bums out of the house and all is right with the world.  I'm over-simplifying, but the general idea is still there.)

According to rumor, the 80 minutes that were cut out would have focused largely on Andy's arc.  He would have continued to pursue Henrietta's money through various other schemes - including blackmail - until Henry finally puts a stop to it by poisoning him and his accomplice.

Aside from making Henry a way darker character, this would most likely have re-framed Henrietta as a more active and aware character.  In order to be blackmailed, she'd have to know that there is a secret she has to keep hidden, so at the very least she would no longer be completely naive, and perhaps not even completely innocent.

I can't tell which version sounds like it would be better.  I think maybe I'd rather go for a compromise: how about a 130 minute version that keeps the murder and excises any kind of blackmail plot?  It's kind of like the best of both worlds.  You get to keep the humor that comes from Henry's cruelty - and damn if that isn't a rich vein - but you also get to keep the humor that comes from Henrietta's childish antics without any kind of gross aftertaste.  Plus, you're still out of there before your ass goes numb.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Sociocultural Relevance

There's some funny subtext in here about classism.  In a lot of ways, Henry Graham is kind of like the Archie Bunker of capitalism.

His fear of being poor is not driven by the severity of hunger or homelessness.  It is simply that he doesn't want to not be rich. There is an over the top sequence early on (perhaps too broad) in which he has a nightmare not that he might have to eat garbage or wear rags - but that he is being rejected from his country club.  The horror!

Contrast this with Henrietta, who finds that the only joy in life comes from her scientific exploration.  She's so wrapped up in botany that she barely even seems to notice that she has money.

It's a bit obvious, but the movie's clearly setting up a Rich Person caricature to show that the upper class is basically just a meaningless waste.  Even more, the rich are actively draining any legitimate pursuits that humanity might seek to offer, considering that Henry is trying to murder Henrietta for most of the movie.

This is not especially deep satire, but it is a kind that we rarely get to see in our pop culture anymore.  Which is to say: it's effective.  Not many people can make a good satire about money in our country.  Almost every time somebody wants to make a statement about class, they resort to a character who is a one-dimensional, greedy Scrooge-like character.

For example, the Mean Rich Guy Villains in Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) or Identity Thief are rich bosses who are also assholes.  They are the bad guys because they are actually bad guys who do bad things.  Their social class and their attitudes toward it - i.e., their love of Being Rich -  are never actually treated with disdain because the heroes are also trying to become Rich.  The satire never hits home.  You can't make fun of a guy for belonging to a social class if your lovable protagonists are just doing more of the same.

A New Leaf takes the right approach with this.  Henry's horrible behavior is based on the fact that he's too dense to realize that Being Rich is not a valuable use of his time.  The problem isn't that he's greedy.  The problem is that he wants to be part of the upper class rather than actually trying to find anything fulfilling for his life.  He doesn't learn this lesson until the very end - and perhaps not even then, depending on how you read the final few minutes.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

It occurs to me now that I haven't even really tried to sell this movie yet other than just saying things like "Oh, it's really funny" or "it's really good."  So let me close out by mentioning the incredible acting.

Comedy is probably the hardest thing for anybody to pull off convincingly.  It's also a fleeting thing - something that's funny now is probably not going to be nearly as funny to people who see it a hundred years from now.  So it's rare that you see a comedic performance that can be described as "Great."

The entire cast - but especially Matthau and May - knocks it out of the park in this one.  Matthau has this amazing ability to communicate deeply internalized anger and despair with the most minor shift of his eyes.  It's incredible.  It even comes across in a screencap.

May, too, has a disarmingly lovable aura that effortlessly comes across.  There is so much about her character that should just be annoying.  She's clumsy (a cliche already), helpless (kind of an offensive stereotype), says silly phrases over and over again (catchphrases are never funny), and is an overall fool.  But May makes Henrietta work to the point where she's not only enjoyable, but she's probably the best character in the movie.

If you're a fan of comedy or just a fan of good performances, you absolutely must check out this movie.  It's that rare breed of movie that manages to be thought-provoking and sarcastic while still being a crowd-pleaser.