For Reel

A New Leaf (1971)
February 17, 2016, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Elaine May
4 Stars
A New LeafElaine May’s directorial debut was reportedly butchered by half of its original running time, which would have reportedly involved blackmail and murder. As it exists now, it is still a hugely satisfying satire, an updating of a screwball comedy in a new, decidedly more cynical context. Walter Mathau plays Henry Graham, a trust fund playboy who has burned through all of his riches. His plan to remedy his problem involves marrying the most hapless upper-class woman he can find and murdering her. Enter the bumbling Henrietta (May), a botanist whose passion for ferns is as admirable as it is uncomely. As much as May pokes fun at her own character’s sexlessness, many of the film’s pleasantries involve the couple’s very awkward connection (even if it is tainted by the deadly intentions!) The hysterical sequence in which Mathau helps May fumble around in a toga nightgown is a wonderfully executed bit of physical comedy, but there is also an intimacy to it that is unmistakable. Mathau’s morose persona is used to its best effect in a role that edges on the side of nihilism–even his usual sardonic charms often drift towards cruelty, as in his (hilarious) berating of the young flower girl at his own wedding. May’s gifts as a director are inextricably linked to her history in improv comedy, and as a result there is a great timing and understatement in the throwaway lines. When Mathau meets a socialite with the surname of Hitler, he asks if the man is related to “the Hitlers of Boston.” While other directors might have shot the moment in close up and taken a pause for audience laughter, May allows it to be delivered (as with many other small lines of its kin) in a long shot and as an aside, encouraging the viewer to listen closely for the humor. Some directors assault the audience with their intention to make them laugh, whereas May merely trusts that they will.

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