The beginning of the film depicts the end of an era. Told that he’s spent all his money, trust-fund millionaire Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) bids a sad goodbye to his favorite restaurant, his club, his sports car, and his butler (George Rose). Lacking skills, ambition, and interests, Henry is unemployable; the only way for him to exist, he decides, is to marry a rich woman. Fate sends him a doozy: Henrietta (Elaine May), a shy, klutzy heiress with no social grace and a love of botany. Henry’s plan is to win her heart, marry her, and kill her.
When Paramount released A New Leaf back in 1971, it was in a version so altered from writer/director/star Elaine May’s conception that she sued the studio to try to take her name off. Perhaps May’s original cut would have felt more fluid, but even as it is, the film is a neglected comedy marvel. The opening scene is right out of Ben Jonson: Henry’s attorney (William Redfield) tries to explain to Henry that he’s broke — a concept for which their shared language, adapted to fantasy, has no terms. Later, Henry meets Henrietta at a tea party, where she’s first seen doing a Jerry Lewis routine with a teacup. When Henrietta, to the horror of her hostess, spoils the carpet (Henrietta is as inept with food as poor Jeannie Berlin in May’s 1972 The Heartbreak Kid), Henry seizes the opportunity to come to her rescue, sweeping her out of the embarrassment she’s created with a flawlessly written and delivered envoi.
One-third of the genius of A New Leaf is the casting. It’s already a brilliant move to take Matthau, an actor established as a slob, and make him play a high-class creep with stunning English clothes and a weird little mid-Atlantic accent. And because it’s Matthau, we quickly get beyond the standard ways of reading such a character: though we want him to reform, we understand that concepts like "reform" are too simple here. Opposite him, May’s innocent looks all the more helpless.
The film serves up highlight after highlight. Trying to talk Henrietta out of marrying her suitor, Henrietta’s crooked lawyer (Jack Weston) pauses in the middle of a tirade to apologize to Henry for clambering over his divan. The wedding-night scene, in which Henry helps Henrietta master the nightgown in which she has awkwardly ensnared herself, is funny just to think about. Later, arriving to take possession of his wife’s Long Island mansion, Henry finds it in a state suggesting that the beggars in Viridiana have had the run of the place for a decade (servants smoke on duty; the chauffeur and a maid make out on the floor).
May’s film would have been blacker than the version that exists. Among other things, Paramount cut two murders committed by Henry, including the poisoning of a tapdancing blackmailer who doesn’t appear at all in the released version. But even without the murders, A New Leaf is remarkably harsh. That Henry can even contemplate killing Henrietta is disturbing, since, as worthless as he is, Matthau and May also make him so attractive (and Henrietta is as wonderful as she is ghastly). May wants to move past all the trite ways — sentimental or cynical — of looking at the story, to get us where Henry and Henrietta can shake us up. The humor of the film is never merely bitter, it’s complex and sophisticated — and if it’s cruel, its cruelty is sane and lucid, free from the need to shock that mars the work of Todd Solondz (if Wes Anderson’s films are imaginative expansions on May, Solondz’s are failed May imitations).
A marvelous moment of resignation finds Henry uttering perhaps the most beautiful line of iambic pentameter ever written for a film: "I have no mind as far as I can tell." These words express the miracle toward which the movie has been moving: Henry’s Zen acceptance of the emptiness and absurdity of an existence in which a rotter like him and a zany like Henrietta can get stuck with each other. The ending of A New Leaf is at once a disillusioned revision of such happy-ever-after endings as those in It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story; a breathtaking discovery of slapstick at comedy’s heart of darkness; and a mystical moment of Renoirian transcendence whose only possible explanation is the flow of the whole film. A New Leaf establishes May as one of American cinema’s finest moralists — and certainly its funniest.