Reviews and notes
Faced with financial ruin, Henry Graham takes his butler Harold Henry’s advice to marry money and descends upon naive heiress Henrietta Lowell with the dual intention of marriage and murder. A wonderful character study that harks back to the screwball era, while retaining the bleak cynicism of Nixonian America. Matthau is superb as the playboy who has frittered away his father's estate and marries May's myopic socialite in the hope of bumping her off during her annual botany trip to the mountains. The contrast between the tetchy charm Henry turns on to seduce Henrietta and the barely concealed disdain with which he deals with her scheming lawyer and grasping housekeeper is effortlessly amusing. But it's his response to Henrietta's endless muddles and infantile clumsiness that gives the film both its edge and its affectionate undertone. Best known then for her satirical cabaret teaming with Mike Nichols, May is an absolute delight as the harmlessly hopeless heiress, whose quirky character traits are infinitely more amusing than her crassly schematic wardrobe. However, her disastrous display at the haute tea party and her inability to don a nightgown on her wedding night are masterclasses in gauche pantomime and the comedy of embarrassment.
- David Parkinson, Empire,
When Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) learns that his fortune has finally run out, he is overwhelmed with quite reasonable self-pity. "All I am — or was — is rich. It's all I wanted to be." Henry's butler agrees: "You'll be poor in the only real sense — in that you'll have no money." The desperate problem demands a desperate solution: Henry decides to many an heiress and then get rid of her with all possible dispatch.
A New Leaf
, which was written and directed by Elaine May, who also co-stars in the film, is the story of Henry's reluctant character reformation through the love of a rich woman. It's also a beautifully and gently cockeyed movie that recalls at least two different traditions of American film comedy to which I've always been partial.
Not since the two-reelers of the 1930's in which Edgar Kennedy, the genius of the slow burn, made his accommodation with the idiocies of Florence Lake, his bird-brained wife, have there been displays of anger, frustration and greed as marvelous as those of Matthau in A New Leaf
. Then, too, A New Leaf
shares with the great screwball comedies of the Depression an almost childlike appreciation of money: it may not buy happiness, but having a lot of it helps.
Essentially, however, A New Leaf
is a love story, since Henry Graham and Henrietta Lowell (Miss May) are eccentrics who could have been made for nobody but each other. He is a misanthropic, suspicious, hand-tailored, high-living playboy, whose preference is for Chateau Lafitte '61, while she is a sweet, trusting, sloppy, near-sighted botanist, who drinks Mogen David Extra Heavy Malaga ("every year is good"), and who also happens to be loaded with money.
Although Miss May's approach to the writing and directing of film comedy is pretty consistently at the blackout-sketch level, reminiscent of her collaborations with Mike Nichols, the quality of the sketches in A New Leaf
is so consistently high, and its cartoon characters are so human, that criticism of its form becomes academic. The entire project is touched by a fine and knowing madness.
I've always been aware of the fact that Matthau is an excellent actor, who is at his best in comedy, but until now I've only been able to suspect this of Miss May. Her Henrietta Lowell is a kind of spin-off of the gauche ladies who used to confront Nichols on television, but she's also as honestly appealing as she is funny. This has the effect of giving a surprising dimension to the kind of slapstick routine in which a lady manages to put on a Grecian-style nightgown by sticking her head and her left arm through the gown's only arm hole.
However, it doesn't do to describe too many details in such a comedy — they should be discovered. Everyone in the supporting cast is appropriately lunatic, especially James Coco, as Matthau's stingy uncle, who plans to leave his fortune to Radio Free Europe, but possibly excepting George Rose, as Matthau's philosophical butler, a role once played (more swishily but no better) by Eric Blore. Mostly, however, I admire Miss May's accurate appraisal of the weird world in which we live, in which peppermills are transistorized and sports cars are built to run faster than is possible on any highway.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 12 March 1971.
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