A New Leaf (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Marrying for her money.

Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) has been living off of his vast inheritance for years only to find that his overspending and has now made him broke. Since he has no work history and no interest in getting a job he decides the only other alternative is to marry a rich woman. He finds his target in the form of Henrietta (Elaine May) who is an heiress to a massive family fortune. She is also quite homely, socially inept, and very into botany. Henry decides to ask for her hand in marriage and then once they are hitched kill her off and acquire her fortune for himself, but nothing goes as planned.

The plot is based on a short story ‘The Green Heart’ by Jack Ritchie and is full of many ingenious twists that helps propel the dark comedy along at a very even tone. Director May’s use of dry, subtle humor comes in perfectly for this type of material. So many other Hollywood comedies feel the need to bombard the viewer with broad, in-your-face gags so it’s genuinely refreshing to have a film take a more restrained approach by allowing the humor to peculate more. Instead of a rapid fire, gag-a-minute pace the film stretches the comical bits out for several minutes allowing the actors to play up the scene to a full crescendo with Henrietta’s inability to wear her evening nightgown properly on their honeymoon being quite possibly the funniest.

The characters are made up of extreme caricatures and in less talented hands could’ve been a detriment, but Matthau manages to play his part so astutely that the viewer ends up liking him anyways and his arc, where he reluctantly and quite unexpectedly ends up helping Henrietta out of several jams that she wasn’t aware of, is quite satisfying. George Rose, who sadly and ironically ended up having the same fate that almost befell the May character here when in 1988 in an attempt to get his hands on Rose’s fortune the teenage son that he adopted killed him while trying to make it look like a car accident, lends great support as Matthau’s wise and loyal butler.

Like with May’s other projects including the notorious Ishtar this film suffered many cost overruns and production delays most notably the 10 months it took to edit the film, which initially ended up having a 180 minute runtime and featured a secondary story dealing with Matthau poisoning a blackmailer played by William Hickey. The then head of Paramount Robert Evans decided, much to May’s objections, to cut this part out, which shortened it to 102 minutes, which I personally feel was a good idea. While I usually like director’s cuts the story here is too thin for a 3-hour length and in many ways goes on a bit too long the way it is although it would still be cool to see the extra footage, which is rumored to have been either lost or destroyed, as a bonus feature on a future DVD/Blu-ray release.

As a simple black comedy it comes off pretty well and even has a cute twist ending. Although a box office flop at the time it has garnered strong acclaim and since become a cult classic. The two stars also reunited 8 years later playing another couple in the Neil Simon farce California Suite

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Elaine May

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

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