Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Leaf (1971)

          To say that Elaine May did not enjoy the same level of success directing movies as her onetime comedy partner, Mike Nichols, is to greatly understate the situation. Whereas he became an Oscar-winning superstar, May helmed just three pictures before focusing her energies on writing and occasional acting. The reasons why May’s directing career sputtered are well known—not only did her three features underperform commercially, but she repeatedly went over-budget and over-schedule thanks to indecisiveness and inefficiency. (Her third movie, 1987’s Ishtar, has become synonymous with behind-the-scenes chaos.) Given this context, it’s unsurprising to learn that May’s directorial debut was the subject of massive battles between the filmmaker and Paramount, which heavily recut the movie against her wishes. Yet while the resulting picture bears obvious scars from postproduction tinkering, it’s a bold and sometimes delightful concoction that undercuts the romantic-comedy genre by presenting a grim plot.
          At least as far as Paramount’s version goes, A New Leaf is a simultaneously sweet and pitch-black comedy about a would-be ladykiller whose scheme gets derailed by love. The film is visually unimaginative but filled with clever dialogue, so it comes across like filmed theater—fitting May’s background as part of an iconic comedy duo, the best scenes are two-person sketches that soar with wry patter. In addition to writing and directing the picture, May costars, quite effectively, as Henrietta Lowell, a meek heiress who lands in the crosshairs of Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), an aging heir who has depleted his fortune. Receiving advice to marry a woman with money, the hopelessly self-involved Henry resolves to find and kill an heiress, since the thought of actually sharing his life with another person is abhorrent. For a time, he believes he’s found the perfect mark in Henrietta, a shy klutz who can’t see through his duplicity, so dark humor steams from the way he cajoles her into marriage, even as her exasperated lawyer, Andy McPherson (Jack Weston), tries to protect Henrietta for less-than-noble reasons. The inevitable twist is that Graham develops the capacity to care about another human being, making it difficult to follow through on his homicidal intentions.
          Based on a Jack Ritchie story, A New Leaf presents a sturdy narrative that hums along nicely even though the humor is never riotous. The title refers to Henrietta’s interest in botany, one of several traits that make her likeable because she’s a complete innocent. May’s performance is charming and utterly devoid of vanity; it’s also a kick to watch her trade punchlines with stone-cold comedy pro Matthau, cast against type as an immaculately dressed sophisticate. Among the supporting players, Weston delivers one of his patented uptight characterizations, James Coco gives a fun turn as Graham’s repulsive uncle, Doris Roberts pops as a lascivious housekeeper, and George Rose adds heart in the role of Henry’s patient butler.

          Nonetheless, the playful quality of May’s dialogue drives this picture more than anything else. Once farcical moment finds Henry  trying to propose while resting a knee on the remnants of a household accident: “Kneeling on broken glass is my favorite pastime,” he says through gritted teeth. “It keeps me from slouching.” Sight gags rarely land as strongly as verbal ones given May’s inexperience at visual storytelling, and it’s tempting to imagine how much better A New Leaf would have played with a stronger hand calling the shots. After all, even though May tried to get her name off the picture, it’s hard not to form the impression that Paramount did her a favor by editing out extraneous material. At 102 minutes, A New Leaf endears without dazzling, so one imagines that May’s 180-minute version considerably overstayed its welcome.

A New Leaf: GROOVY

1 comment:

greg6363 said...

Unfortunately, May could never keep any of her projects under budget. Her command of a set was not exemplary which made her persona non-grata among studio executives despite her talent.