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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A NEW LEAF -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Two of my favorite "grown-up" comedies as a kid were THE GRADUATE (1967) and THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972), both cockeyed modern relationship tales that embodied a new kind of droll, deadpan satire which I found deeply appealing. 

Common to these films was Elaine May.  The former film, in which she played a bit role, was directed by her sometime performing partner Mike Nichols (with whom she helped form Second City), and she herself would direct her own daughter Jeannie Berlin in the hilarious THE HEARTBREAK KID in 1972.

It's no wonder, then, that I found Elaine May's 1971 directing and co-starring effort A NEW LEAF (Olive Signature Films) so irresistibly entertaining.  The expert combination of borderline farce with a restrained, achingly dry deadpan delivery and reined-in directorial approach makes it the kind of comedy that's intellectually stimulating one moment and laugh-out-loud hilarious the next.

Walter Matthau contributes to much of this with his pitch-perfect performance as spoiled, self-centered rich person Henry Graham, who can't believe it when his flagrant overspending wipes out his trust fund and leaves him a pauper. 

His only alternative to suicide, it seems, is to marry a wealthy woman before his funds are totally depleted and then discreetly murder her.  His loyal butler Harold (George Rose) consents out of self-interest to help him in the first part of his plan, but expresses misgivings about the second.

Enter Elaine May as Henrietta Lowell, an enormously well-endowed (financially, that is) spinster who's also one of the most endearingly clumsy and innocent characters you could ever meet.  Mousey, anxious, dreadfully insecure, and as coordinated as a newborn calf, she can't even sit still without calamitous results.  She's perfect for Henry's plans--he meets her, woos her, proposes, and, in no time, they're married.

The scene in which Henry tries to help Henrietta sort out her fancy new Grecian nightgown (she has her head in the armhole) on their honeymoon night is a slowburn delight of extended but controlled frustration.  I also love wine connoisseur Henry's suppressed horror when introduced to Henrietta's favorite drink, Mogen David Extra Heavy Malaga with soda and lemon, which he must pretend to savor. 

May's slapstick incompetent is the perfect, trusting foil to Matthau's fussy, sociopathic snob and their scenes together are like comedy confections wrapped in gold foil.  Her instincts for directing comedy to its best advantage are dead on the mark at every turn, bringing out the best of both stars and their supporting cast.

This includes stalwarts Jack Weston as Henrietta's manipulative lawyer, James Coco as Henry's spiteful uncle, Doris Roberts as the embezzling manager of gullible Henrietta's household staff, William Redfield as Henry's harried financial adviser, and several other familiar names of the era. 

The leads play it all with a sort of overt subtlety that makes one look forward to the next scene and their next bit together.  I love Matthau's casually methodical cad, reading up on various poisons and gaining access to Henrietta's finances even as he finds himself increasingly fussing over her physical appearance and well-being. 

And May's Henrietta, a botanist whose dream is to find a new strain of fern that she can name herself, is one of the most lovable klutzes to ever fumble her way into my heart.  So much so, in fact, that even Henry can't help but be touched--in his own comically nonplussed way--by some of her childlike foibles. 

Even the stereotypically romantic music is richly satirical, with nary a single "isn't this funny?" note in the entire score.  With a brilliant screenplay to match (written by May from the Jack Ritchie short story), A NEW LEAF is one of cinema's most low-key and tastefully restrained comic delights.  After Henry's final attempt to murder Henrietta during a botany field trip, the fern turns and leaves us with a somewhat abrupt but just-right ending. 

Bonus Features:

New restoration from 4K scan of original camera negative
Audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler
“The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf” – interview with A New Leaf assistant editor Angelo Corrao
“Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions” – with director Amy Heckerling
Essay by critic, editor & film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
“The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, the source material for Elaine May’s script

Languages: english
Video: 1.85:1 aspect ratio; color
Runtime: 102 minutes
Year: 1971

Order it from Olive Films


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