The version of A New Leaf the general public has been given isn't the version the film's director wanted us to have. Elaine May's initial cut of the film ran a whopping three hours, and after many months of tussling with studio executives, Paramount took the film away from her, snipped it down to 102 minutes and released it. May was furious, and made unsuccessful attempts to halt the film's release and have her name removed from the final cut. 19 times out of 20, a story like that ends with a great big mess of a film and sentimental thoughts about what might have been. A New Leaf, however, is a different story: the film is thoroughly charming, funny and wondrously loopy, despite the fact that a few pieces are rather obviously missing.
The film centers on Henry Graham (Walter Matthau, The Odd Couple), a wealthy, clueless buffoon who has spent the past fifteen years burning through his trust fund at an alarming rate. Alas, Henry's utter lack of foresight has finally led him to financial ruin (cue a delightfully goofy montage in which Henry visits all of the expensive places he likes to frequent and mutters a self-pitying, “Goodbye!” at each stop). His wealth has allowed to behave like a jackass over the years, so he has no friends who are willing to help him out during this moment of crisis. Additionally, his wealth has permitted him to avoid anything resembling real work, so he has no skills that he can use to gain respectable employment.
Ah, but Henry isn't letting go of his comfortable life without a fight. He makes a risky bargain with his Uncle Harry (James Coco, Generation), borrowing $50,000 and promising to pay it back with interest in a mere six weeks. He plans to get this money by finding a wealthy woman, convincing her to fall in love with him, marrying her and then persuading her to give him the money he needs to cover his loan. Admittedly, there's one tiny problem with this plan: he'll be stuck with a wife he doesn't actually want (“I mean she'd be there, asking where I'd been, talking to me, talking... I wouldn't be able to bear it”). So, he quietly decides that he'll just go ahead and murder the woman after he's gotten his affairs in order.
After several failed attempts at persuading someone to fall in love with him, Henry finally finds the perfect woman: Henrietta Lowell (played by May herself), a clumsy, bespectacled heiress and botany professor. Henrietta's ditzy behavior and general lack of social grace can make her difficult company, but Henry valiantly suppresses his frustration and persuades her that he's head-over-heels in love with her.
I'll stop there, but suffice it to say that this is a film that never quite goes where you're expecting it to go. The characters are constantly evolving, and the film evolves with them. Henry begins the film as a dumb jerk, and by the halfway point, he has become a fairly intelligent jerk. Likewise, the film begins with some absurdly broad comedy (the opening scene is a Mel Brooks-esque moment that finds Matthau taking his expensive convertible to a “car doctor”) and gradually works its way to more grounded (but no less funny) material: just take a look at the wonderful bit of silliness that occurs when Henry attempts to help Henrietta figure out how to wear her nightgown.
The two lead performances are wonderful and deceptively complex: both characters begin as cartoonish types and then gradually begin to reveal all sorts of complications. May's performance is a magnificent essay in understated physical comedy; a woman whose mind and hands are rarely in the same place at the same time. Henrietta is an educated woman, but she seems utterly incompetent in the realm of personal grooming: crumbs accumulate on her clothes at an alarming rate, her makeup has a mind of its own and none of her outfits seem to fit her properly. “That woman is a menace not only to health, but to western civilization as we know it,” Henry roars.
Still, at least Henrietta is a kind, good-hearted person. Henry is a seemingly irredeemable twit whose rare moments of personal growth are rooted entirely in self-interest. Matthau – one of the most down-to-earth actors of all time – isn't exactly playing to type as a stupid, snotty, emotionally detached would-be killer, but that's part of why it's such a brilliant piece of casting: no matter how horrible Henry's behavior is, you can't help but wonder if there might be a person hiding somewhere in there. Matthau's deadpan line readings are nothing short of delightful, as is the preposterous “refined” accent that he sports during the film's early scenes. In the film's later scenes, Matthau plunges wholeheartedly into black comedy, generating both laughter and tension in the way he continually explores murderous fantasies.
The film is never less than entertaining, but the second half definitely feels a lot patchier than the first. Subplots involving Henrietta's corrupt attorney (Jack Weston, Please Don't Eat the Daisies) and Henrietta's large staff of employees feel as if they've been cut off halfway through, as the film goes through the motions of setting up some dramatic conflicts and then just ignores them entirely. Still, the film's ending ties everything together nicely, bringing something resembling real emotion into the mix. May is never, ever sentimental, but by the time we reach the conclusion, we realize that we really care about these broken people. Despite being a thoroughly compromised work of art, this is a terrific comedy. It's a considerable tribute to May's talent that so much of what remains is so much fun.
A New Leaf
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 1971