**** 1/2 out of *****
Running time: 102 minutes
MPAA rating: G
A New Leaf, writer/director Elaine May’s magnificent black comedy, has finally become available on dvd. This 1971 cult favorite carries on the tradition of such classic offbeat romances as Arsenic and Old Lace, His Girl Friday and Groundhog Day.
Working from a script which blends gallows humor, May's innovative sketch comedy work with Mike Nichols and a surprising vision of romantic love, May assembled a dream cast for her first feature film. With Walter Matthau and herself in the leads, she brought in such first-rate second bananas as Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, Doris Roberts, and Renee Taylor, as well as a host of other talents, to populate the privileged world of the central characters.
Matthau plays the ne’er-do-well Henry Graham, scion of an East Coast family of the American aristocracy. The film begins with Graham's startling discovery that he has spent through his entire inheritance. In order to avoid being reduced to a member of the detested middle class, he is advised by his faithful butler (Rose) that his only hope for the continuation of his elaborately gilded existence is to marry a rich woman.
What Henry doesn’t mention to the butler or anyone else is that once he marries, he plans on murdering his wife and inheriting her money to continue his single, uncomplicated, self-centered lifestyle.
As he is all but broke, Henry is obliged to borrow money from his despised uncle (Coco) at 1000 percent interest. With the loan due in six weeks, and only $50,000 to spend, Henry sets out to find a wife. After a frustrating series of failed dates, he finally stumbles upon the perfect mate, Henrietta Lowell (May). She’s a clueless, unsophisticated, all-too trusting botanist with a massive fortune and no living relatives.
What follows is black comedy at its darkest, as newlyweds Henry and Henrietta settle into life together. She goes about her botanical research while he gets her overstaffed mansion in order while simultaneously plotting her doom.
Matthau, whose precise comic timing and extreme likeability are on a par with Jack Benny and Groucho Marx, sustains the role of a loser with villainous intentions who you just can’t bring yourself to hate. Although his character fancies himself capable of doing in the missus, you know he’s just a schnook at heart, a would-be villain with a heart of gold.
And May, who begins the film as a clueless victim, emerges as a dream wife whose down-to-earth ways and unquestioning love transform her husband from a heartless misanthrope into an actual human being.
Matthau and May are a great screen team, and their adventures here bear repeated viewings. This is in large part due to May’s extraordinary writing abilities, as demonstrated in such other work as Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, Mike Nichols’ The Bird Cage and Primary Colors, and for her own scripts for the underappreciated Ishtar and Mikey and Nicky (starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk.
It is a great shame that Elaine May only got the chance to direct four films. But at least we have the chance to see her at her best in A New Leaf.