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A New Leaf

Posted by martinteller on October 21, 2012

Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has never known anything but a life of wealth and privilege.  He has no talents, no ambitions, and no regard for anyone but himself.  But his reckless spending has left him destitute.  He concocts a scheme to marry into money, but needs capital to keep up appearances.  He turns to his uncle Harry (James Coco) for a loan, but it comes with strict terms: repay tenfold in six weeks or lose everything he has left.  Harry’s attempts to find a suitable woman are fruitless and with one week remaining, things look bleak.  Then he meets the perfect mark: Henrietta Lowell (writer/director Elaine May), a clumsy, awkward, uncultured, socially isolated botanist.

In the tradition of screwball comedy and Ealing Studios, this is a lively farce about the upper class.  It’s also a sterling romantic comedy, managing to achieve a rare warmth without betraying the underlying cynicism.  I can’t say much more without giving too much away, but May deftly constructs the film so that no character moments feels out of place, you never feel that someone is acting contrary to their nature for the sake of a plot point.

And the movie is downright funny, too.  I was a little disheartened at the very start, when I saw the first gag coming a mile away.  But after that it was smooth sailing, with a handful of laugh-out-loud moments and quite a few chuckle-worthy ones.  I would call it more “amusing” than “hilarious” but there wasn’t a single joke I felt was too broad, too cheap or too dumb.  The leads are both terrific in their roles, Matthau stepping away from his usual working-class schlub and May so endearing as the earnest klutz.  Also some fine supporting actors like George Rose as Harry’s butler (far more competent than his employer) and an all-too-brief appearance by William Redfield.

May’s original three-hour cut of the film is supposedly much darker and more macabre.  I would like to see it, but the movie is perfectly fine as it is, witty and savage about its characters without taking cheap potshots.  And remarkably charming for what it’s doing.  The premise is a little shaky (the “deadline” feels artificial since Harry could just sell some of his luxuries to buy himself more time) but it doesn’t interfere much with the delights of the tight script and winning performances.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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