Darkling and toothsome in its black-hearted comedy, A New Leaf marks the directorial debut of triple threat Elaine May, who also scripted and starred in the film. May was formerly one half of renowned stand-up comedy duo Nichols and May. May’s erstwhile partner Mike Nichols had already made the leap into filmmaking with a string of critical and popular successes, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. For her first foray into film, May adapted a short story by Jack Ritchie titled “The Green Heart.” An inveterate perfectionist, May reportedly turned out a three-hour cut of the film that included several added subplots and a body count (the truncated version lacks any killings whatsoever), effectively plunging the film a ways down that slippery slope of directorial excess, the likes of which culminated in notorious flops like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and May’s own Ishtar. (Neither of these films, it should be expressly mentioned, is nearly as bad as their reputations might lead an unwary filmgoer to believe.) Compared to those sprawling, admittedly indulgent works, however, A New Leaf is a wryly modest bit of hilarity, written with an ear perfectly attuned to the ornate thrust of its opulent dialogue, and peopled with a rogue’s gallery of richly risible bit players.
Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has a problem. Spoiled rotten by a life of luxury and temperamentally unprepared for anything approaching gainful employ, he has arrived at a rather incommodious crossroads. His spendthrift ways have plunged him into penury. (Henry’s profligacy is conveyed via an amusing montage populated by expensively malfunctioning vehicles, punctuated by his affectless plaint, “Carbon on the valves.”) Faced with a number of equally unpleasant alternatives, Henry persuades himself that he “needs must marry” (as the Bard so lightly puts it). Granted, for Henry, this arrangement is merely a matter of principle. As his redoubtable butler, Harold (George Rose), says: “How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime, Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.” For Henry, it stands to reason, only an incalculably wealthy heiress will fit the bill. For, you see, he doesn’t intend to remain wedded very long. Henry’s attempts to find a suitable
victim partner yield at least one nugget of comedic gold in his poolside run-in with buxom Renee Taylor. As she reaches to unclasp her bikini top, he yowls in dismay, “No! Don’t let them out!” Funny, yes, but it also neatly points up Henry’s fundamental asexual (maybe even anti-sexual) narcissism.
Enter hapless horticulturalist Henrietta (May). Henrietta’s watchword is a flustered “Heavens!” Tapping into her improvisatory experience, May convincingly invests Henrietta with a spastic charm and at the same time a childlike guilelessness, making her the perfect foil for Matthau’s monster of self-absorption. Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth. For Henry and Henrietta, the primary speed bump along the road to wedded bliss—or, as Henry would have it, an early grave for our Miss Lowell—comes in the form of lovelorn litigator McPherson (Jack Weston). McPherson has what might generously be called a conflict of interest when it comes to Henrietta. He has romantically pursued the perplexed plant-lover for many a year, all the while grossly mismanaging her estate. Bounteous grist for May’s comic mill arises from Henry’s devious attempts to thwart McPherson’s amorous advances, and then from his efforts to clean up the monetary morass McPherson has left in his wake.
And so, the long-anticipated murder attempt that occupies A New Leaf‘s final act arrives as something of an anticlimax. More than anything, this can be attributed to Henry’s precipitous change of heart, which “goes green” with renewed ardor. Admittedly, this has as much to do with the Jack Ritchie source material as it does with the supposed tampering of studio know-it-alls. Still, for all that Henry’s about-face is handled with aplomb by Matthau, it blunts the film’s satirical edge. What looks, at least during its gloriously overwrought and inky-black first two acts, to be developing into a shrewd contemporary take on Ealing Studio’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, ultimately winds up a good-natured companion piece to, say, Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. Heavens!
Heretofore only available on a cropped pan-and-scan VHS, A New Leaf makes its HD debut with a strong and vibrant Blu-ray transfer courtesy of Olive Films. There's some minor speckling, to be sure, and one or two instances of vertical scratches and speckling. Nevertheless, one can say without fear of contradiction that the film hasn't looked this good since its theatrical release 41 years ago. Likewise, the Master Audio mono track is sturdy, clearly conveying Elaine May's prolix screwball dialogue.
Turn it over how you will: A New Leaf looks better than ever in another one of Olive Films' barebones Blu-ray packages.