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With: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, Doris Roberts, Renée Taylor, William Redfield, Graham Jarvis, Jess Osuna, David Doyle, Fred Stewart, Mark Gordon, Rose Arrick
Written by: Elaine May, based on a story by Jack Ritchie
Directed by: Elaine May
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 102
Date: 03/11/1971

A New Leaf (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Plant and Rave

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At one point, Elaine May was best known as the comedy partner of Mike Nichols. When the team split, they both became film directors. Nichols' career is still going: long, prolific, celebrated and terribly bland. May's career was unfairly truncated, completing only four films in the past 40 years. But I'd swap every single one of Nichols' films for those four; they're passionate, bizarre, heartfelt, quirky, and very personal.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, all of her films deal with two partners, and the betrayal of one by another. A New Leaf is probably the softest of the four films, probably due to alleged re-editing before release. It's also May's directorial debut, and the last of her four films to find its way to DVD. Olive Films has released it, in addition to a high-quality new Blu-ray, with no extras.

Walter Matthau stars in a somewhat uncharacteristic role, though he's still brilliant, as Henry Graham, a trust-fund millionaire who finds he has squandered his entire fortune. He realizes his only chance to survive in the manner to which he has become accustomed is to meet a rich woman and marry her. He strikes a devilish deal with his uncle (James Coco) and goes a-courting.

After several failures, he meets Henrietta (May). She's a botanist, chronically clumsy, withdrawn, and uncultured, but also terribly sweet. She's perfect. Henry works his magic on her, but after a while he decides that, once he pulls off his plan, he won't be able to live with her, so he also begins to plot her demise.

May's brand of humor is beyond deadpan, and you may find yourself laughing long after the fact, even if you're not laughing in the moment. She doesn't underline her comedy beats and instead lets them nestle into their moments, though, admittedly, there are plenty of slapstick moments with Henrietta spilling wine on white carpets. The film's cutting is razor-precise, however, and it's only after a cut that the humor sinks in.

Her characters are, of course, abominable, but she sticks with them, and waits for their humanity to eventually come out. (May was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy, and the film was nominated for Best Picture, Comedy.)

May was said to have been a loose, almost reckless director on set, going more on crazy artistic instinct than any kind of planning. My favorite story about her supposedly happened on the set of her third film, Mikey and Nicky (1977); the characters finished the scene and walked off camera. A cameraman waited for a bit and then called "cut." May balked at the command, and the man argued that the characters had left the scene. "Yes," May replied, "but they might come back."

After A New Leaf, May directed the equally funny The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and then the crime drama Mikey and Nicky. She had to wait ten years to make her fourth and final film, Ishtar, whose name is still associated with expensive flops (a.k.a. "turkeys"). But since that time, many have stepped up to defend Ishtar; indeed, its depiction of two bumbling, inept musicians may have given the impression that the film itself was bumbling and inept.

But in Hollywood, though men can be forgiven for losing money, women cannot, and she never directed again. She continued to work as an uncredited script doctor, and eventually took credit on two Nichols films, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She also returned to acting with a very funny performance in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000). One would hope she is given the chance to work again sometime soon, but, if not, we still have A New Leaf.

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