Film review – A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)

A New Leaf, the 1971 debut feature film from Elaine May, tells the story of Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a wealthy man who finds himself broke through misfortune and bad money management. Striking a deal with his rich uncle Harry, he borrows $50,000 to help facilitate a temporary extension to his rich lifestyle, with the hope that in the time he has to pay Harry back he can find a rich single woman to marry and regain financial security. He happens upon Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a shy and clumsy botanical professor who may well provide the solution to his problems.

The film is definitely a black comedy, even though its light on the latter. Much of the humour here is based on Matthau being in situations of discomfort or unfamiliarity. Initially suicidal after realising he has now money, then more so at having to say farewell to his favourite upper class haunts, his pain is worsened by having to act like he has feelings of affection and compassion for a woman he has little interest in. Driven solely by money, he is shocked at how poorly her finances are managed, sacking her entire house staff team in one memorable scene.

The film plays out like an extended and scripted episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s hard to think that Larry David hasn’t seen this and been influenced by it in some way, though admittedly the comedy in David’s work is much more realised.

However, as a one-trick pony the joke tends to wear thin as we progress towards the inevitable climax of the film. According to the extensive liner notes – a gift we come to expect with the Masters of Cinema releases – there was a much extended version of A New Leaf (running at a whopping 180 minutes) that never saw the light of day, and probably never will. Whilst it’s always a shame to think a director’s vision hasn’t been fully realised, and the normal response from film enthusiasts is that the director’s cut is the ultimate version of a film, it appears that what we do have access to is probably as good as it gets. Indeed, Matthau preferred the shortened version, which cuts out a murder subplot and provides a happy resolution at the end.

That’s not to say that May’s vision is unworthy of viewing. Certainly, as a writer-director-star she succeeded in creating a solid picture. Her character in the film is by far the most interesting. She is a scientific professor, despite seemingly not needing to work (having inherited her wealth). She is essentially a philanthropist if we look at the way she treats her overpaid and underworked house staff. She is a loving and dedicated wife to her new husband, despite getting nothing in return for her devotion. In many ways, despite her introverted geekiness and inherent clumsy nature, she is a strong female role model. Subtly, the plot of the film is a slight on men in general, which was unusual for the era.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a little known film for a reason. It’s not groundbreaking or unique enough to warrant any kind of extensive praise. It has its fans and at times we are watching vintage Matthau, but the pacing, lack of a cutting script and predictable plotline undermine what could have been a much better end product.