It’s a shame that Elaine May didn’t have the same appetite for directing movies as her onetime comedy partner, Mike Nichols, because she made a handful of interesting pictures before disappearing into the lower-profile world of screenwriting, frequently as an uncredited script doctor. Presumably the fact that her three ’70s movies did mediocre business, and the fact that her lone ’80s endeavor was the notorious flop Ishtar (1987), limited her career choices. May got off to a rocky start as a director with A New Leaf, a simultaneously sweet and pitch-black comedy about a would-be lady-killer whose homicidal intent is impeded by the unexpected arrival of new love. In addition to writing and directing the picture, May costars, quite effectively, as Henrietta, a meek heiress who gets caught in the crosshairs of Graham (Walter Matthau), a trust-fund kid who blew through his fortune and needs a new source of cash. The title refers to Henrietta’s botany hobby, which is one of several nerdy character traits that make Henrietta likeable because she seems like a complete innocent. The plot is predictable, but watching stone-cold pros Matthau and May bounce off each other is great fun; it’s especially entertaining to see Matthau play a well-dressed sophisticate, since he spent most of his career personifying cantankerous slobs. May is charming and unassuming, giving a performance almost utterly devoid of vanity, and of course her impeccable timing is a huge part of the film’s effectiveness. Having said that, she apparently tried to get her name taken off the picture after the studio re-edited her version, but the commercially available cut of the movie is so charming that it’s hard to imagine much damage was truly done. Clever, incisive, and smart, A New Leaf goes a long way toward explaining why May is held in such reverential esteem by her peers in the comedy world.
A New Leaf: GROOVY