Monday, 27 March 2017

AFS Screening: A New Leaf

This year's series of Auckland Film Society movie reviews starts with a look at Elaine May's 1971 comedy A New Leaf.

If the name Elaine May does not ring any bells, here's a little refresher. May started out as a comedian, working in a double act with Mike Nichols. Nichols went on to become a famous theatre and film director, responsible for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Postcards From The Edge and Primary Colors, among many others.

May became a screenwriter and has garnered an impressive resume as such. As a director, her most notable credit is 1987's Ishtar, an overly expensive comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman that has gone down as one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood. This is a shame, since her other work is terrific: 1972's The Heartbreak Kid, 1978's Heaven Can Wait and Nichols' Clintonian satire Primary Colors.

 A New Leaf tells the story of Henry Graham (Matthau), an over-aged playboy who has ran out of money. Terrified at the idea of becoming poor, the blue blood decides his only way out is to marry a rich woman and kill her. His target winds up being Henrietta Lowell (May), a clumsy heiress who is more interested in practising botany than her money.

I had never heard of this movie before, and went in solely on its pedigree. It's great. Matthau is superlative as the privileged man-baby who slowly warms to his new bride. To the film's credit, this final turn is pushed to the very end, so we don't get a cop-out character shift halfway through.

Elaine May is surprisingly subdued as the object of Henry's feigned affections. It's a testament to the woman's ego, to say nothing of her talent, that she did not use the opportunity of directing her own movie into her own star vehicle.

The rest of the cast are all terrific, especially Jack Weston as Henrietta's lovesick lawyer, and George Rose as Harold, Henry's long-suffering gentleman's gentleman. 

The movie was dramatically cut down before release, from original runtime of three hours, and bombed on release. I wonder just how good the original cut was, because as is, the film is nice and tight, moving quickly through the story with a strong set of comic set pieces (the couple's struggle over Henrietta's gown is hilariously protracted).

If I have one criticism, it is that there are occasional moments where the seams show. Matthau is great in the lead, but he is playing a character who is clearly meant to be younger (apparently Christopher Plummer was May's original choice), and a few of the character's more petulant moments ring a little false. 

Apart from these nitpicks, A New Leaf is a hidden gem. It's greatest success is that it manages to juggle the inherent darkness of its story with wit and a surprisingly deft sense of empathy toward its lead characters. If you get a chance, check it out. It definitely deserves more of a profile than it has received.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant 

Eyes Without A Face 

Night of the Demon (2016)

Grand Central

Tales of Hoffman

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