[Film Review] A New Leaf (1971)

A New Leaf poster

Title: A New Leaf
Year: 1971
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director/Writer: Elaine May
based on Jack Ritchie’s short story THE GREEN HEART
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Walter Matthau
Elaine May
Jack Weston
George Rose
James Coco
William Redfield
Doris Roberts
Graham Jarvis
Renée Taylor
William Hickey
David Boyle
Conrad Bain
Rating: 6.9/10

A NEW LEAF is Elaine May’s triple threat caper, marks her director debut and pairs with a puffy Walter Matthau, plays Henry Graham, a middle-aged, blue-blooded, marriage-scorning boulevardier, who must find a rich wife within 6 weeks, otherwise, he will go bankrupt and lose all his property to his avaricious uncle (Coco).

Certainly Henry has no one else but himself to blame for the disastrous situation just because he is very ill-equipped to administer his own financial affairs, and splurges money as he wishes, a privilege for those who are born with a silver spoon. But he is absolutely has no desire to put an end to his free-as-a-bird bachelor lifestyle, so, here is his plan, find a suitable bride, marry her, then murder her, so he can inherit all her money and stay single as longer as he prefers.

That’s the premise of Henry meets Henrietta (May, in her trademark oversized spectacles), an unassuming, socially clumsy bachelorette, a botanist, well-heeled thanks to her late father, no families or relatives, all alone in this vast world, she is tailor-made for Henry and most importantly, she is quite fond of him. Henry’s courtship goes extremely smooth although he finds her inept nature is too repugnant to endure, downgrades her from “primitive” to “regressive”. Despite of a droll proposal (Henry kneels down on the broken glasses) and the intended sabotage from his uncle and Henrietta’s long-time suitor-cum-lawyer Andy McPherson (Weston), within one week, they are hitched! A snapshot of their honeymoon looks like this, Henry is reading BEGINNERS GUIDE TO TOXICOLOGY in the foreground while Henrietta in the background, is trying to reach for a rare fern growing under the tip of a cliff with only one of her legs fastened to a rope. Get rid of that book and lend her a hand, Henry!

Back from the honeymoon, to Henry’s dismay, he finds out that Henrietta, not just a incorrigibly daffy and geeky type, she is also categorically the most incompetent person ever, to run an estate, whose over-diplomatic policy vis-à-vis her house staff, headed by the housekeeper Mrs. Traggert (a flirty Doris Roberts), obliges Henry to take the liberty and execute an overhaul of the shameless parasites, then get acquainted with the financial status and even take an interest of the taxes management in order to get the place running proper. His trustworthy butler Harold (Rose, epitomizes a dying species of his own) detects Henry’s intention, implies that maybe this is not an ill-fit match after all, it might be Henrietta’s cosmic incompetence that spurs Henry’s strength of will to run such a huge property with a confident hand, aka. she makes him a better, more capable man.

But, that doesn’t completely change Henry’s conviction when a golden chance emerges, Henry agrees to join Henrietta in her annual field trip to the Adirondacks, just two of them, in the wild, on a canoe, through the torrents. Will he relent when the crunch arrives? Maybe he can take an alternative, sticks to the marriage with her, he could even teach history in the university, as Henrietta constantly cajoles, above all, she shows her genuine affection through the only thing she is good at, gifts him a form of immortality, if that could not soften a man’s murderous heart, what else could?

Undeterred by its murder-centered wickedness, A NEW LEAF predictably but adequately extracts a heartwarming and life-affirming message out of its outré and farcical storyline (if a bit too patriarchal for my palate), a welcoming chemistry comes off naturally between Matthau and May, which would prompt their second on-screen collaboration in Herbert Ross’ less whimsical ensemble piece CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978). May’s directorial dexterity doesn’t leave a strong imprint, nevertheless, as a dark comedy with an agenda too quirky to find either relevance or credibility, it has a level-headed through-line to stick with without pandering to cheap laughter or offensive caricature which most of its peers had done or would have done, and eventually offers a populist suggestion that we might give marriage a try no matter how poles apart the two parties are, and sometimes a sweet compromise is not that unthinkably bad.

A New Leaf 1971

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