A notorious perfectionist, writer-director Elaine May (Ishtar, Mikey & Nicky, The Heartbreak Kid) didn’t finish movies so much as let them be ripped out of her hands by studios apoplectic over her obsessive tendencies and impossible standards. This unfortunate dynamic began with her 1971 directorial debut, A New Leaf, a darkly funny screwball comedy about the redemption of a seemingly irredeemable cad that was taken away from May by Robert Evans and Paramount and re-cut to a relatively brisk 102 minutes after the editing process threatened to pass the one-year mark. Rumors persist of a three-hour cut of A New Leaf, but the film is now receiving a tardy DVD release with no bonus features, let alone the fabled long version that remains the Holy Grail for May admirers.
But that’s more than enough for now. Walter Matthau gloriously channels W.C. Fields as a wealthy heir whose commitment to leading a life devoid of honest labor and substance is so thorough, it almost feels honorable. As the film’s loveably loathsome blue-blood protagonist, Matthau has the look and bearing of a gentleman, and the morals and values of a sweatshop proprietor. His tidy life of extreme leisure and keeping up appearances gets turned upside down when his inheritance dries up and he’s forced to consider some hard options: go broke, get a job, or marry for money. Matthau decides the last option is at least marginally preferable to suicide, so he purposefully woos and weds a daffy, botany-obsessed heiress (May)—a woman as clumsy, inept, and sweet as Matthau is nasty and impeccably put-together—with the intention of killing his new bride for her vast fortune.
Matthau and May prove a perfect pairing of opposites. May is ingratiatingly guileless. Matthau is nothing but cold calculation and naked ambition, but the process of impersonating a decent human being while seducing May humanizes and reconnects him with his decency. As a filmmaker and an actress, May is a master of the comedy of discomfort. Many of the film’s biggest laughs come from Matthau’s hilariously restrained, bifurcated reactions to May’s unselfconscious nattering: his body language remains proper, but his expressive eyes betray stark, existential horror bordering on revulsion. It’s as if Matthau’s snobby brain wants to leap out of his skull and attack him for betraying his own selfishness by even pretending to be considerate to his new wife. May’s infectious sweetness and vulnerability make A New Leaf an invigorating contradiction: a good-natured, big-hearted black comedy, a poignant yet unsentimental story about a sharp-tongued misanthrope whose previously unwavering commitment to serving only his own selfish needs is defeated by his wife’s messy, irrepressible humanity.
Key features: None.