A screwball-oddball comedy that deserves far more attention than it gets, A New Leaf comes from the deceptively daffy mind of writer-director-costar Elaine May (who adapted a story by Jack Ritchie). Taken as a whole — the sum of its dizzy parts — A New Leaf showcases a disarming and deferential comic brilliance.
Consider, for instance, that May herself doesn’t make an appearance until we’re a good third of the way into the film. Up until that point, she directs our attention to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a once-rich bachelor who has blithely spent all of his inheritance, yet continues to live as if that wasn’t the case. (An amusing early montage consists of Henry ignoring a series of increasingly persistent phone calls from his lawyer.) At the advice of his butler (the wonderfully dry George Rose), Henry sets out to find an eligible, wealthy bachelorette, marry her, murder her and reestablish his life of idle affluence through a second inheritance.
Given the darkness of that scheme, it’s a testament to Matthau’s goofball affability that we’re more amused than appalled. There’s even a comic poignancy to Henry’s goodbye tour of his posh familiar places: a French bistro, a polo stable, his private club. In one of the movie’s small but hilarious touches, he wistfully pets a priceless statue in his house, then does the same to Harold, his butler.
Despite his willful financial negligence, Henry is smarter than he appears, especially once he puts his plan into action. The same could be said of May’s Henrietta Lowell, the heiress Henry chooses as his target. A complete klutz — they “meet cute” when she spills tea all over an expensive rug at a society party — Henrietta is also a botany professor whose interest in money lags far behind her interest in ferns.
For romantic-comedy adversaries, it’s interesting that both Henry and Henrietta come off as largely asexual. In fact, Henry seems horrified by the idea, exclaiming to one early prospect, as she is about to slip out of her bikini, “No — don’t let them out!” Nevertheless, he’s enough of a social animal to make his wooing of Henrietta seem genuine, and she quickly warms under his attention. The scene in which they meet manages to combine slapstick and sincere sentimentality, especially in the way Henry notices she’s about to spill before she does, and then comes to her defense when the rest of the guests snobbishly disapprove of her clumsiness. Later, on their honeymoon, Henrietta gets caught in her nightgown resulting in an extended bit of farce that is both hilarious and sweetly intimate.
The nightgown scene in particular has the improvisational unpredictability of the comedy sketches May performed with Mike Nichols, which first brought her fame on stage and television. Expanding her canvas to the big screen, she proves to be an uneven director but not a disinterested one. Sometimes her instincts are too broad, including a garish close-up and a whiplash editing scheme that unwisely tries to mimic witty banter. Yet there are other, more effective directorial touches, including a sequence in which Henry imagines his future life of poverty in his bedroom mirror (he’s driving a Chevrolet) and a shot in which Henry reads from a toxicology book in close-up while Henrietta can be seen in the background, dangling over a cliff while trying to reach a plant specimen.
I’m not sure how A New Leaf registered in 1971, before the social and economic malaise of that decade had really begun to settle in, but it speaks volumes in post-recession America. Even after the financial meltdown of 2008, we’re still a nation obsessed with attaining wealth at all costs and clinging to it against all logic. Harold describes it to Henry thusly, while dressing him in the evening coat that no one will see him wear: “In a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much.” If the ending of A New Leaf goes a bit too soft a bit too quickly, unconvincingly molding Henry and Henrietta into a genuine couple, perhaps we can be generous and say that this is simply a continuation of a similar fantasy narrative.