In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Immensely dark and goofily light at the same time.”
“Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she was primitive? I retract that. She’s feral.”
In the late 50s and 60s, Nichols and May was one of America’s most successful and popular comedy teams. When they moved beyond the stage, both went into the movies. Mike Nichols directed revered classics like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. On the downside, he also made the inexplicable hit, Working Girl. The last directorial effort in his prolific career came in 2007 with Charlie Wilson’s War, before his death in 2014. Elaine May, on the other hand, was a little more restrained in her output. Directing only four feature films, the last one came in 1987 with Ishtar. But from all reports, her directorial career is as impressive as it is short. Which is why I knew I needed to see her debut behind the camera, A New Leaf.
Middle aged New York playboy Henry (Walter Mathua) spends his time and money driving and fixing his Ferrari, riding his prized horses and living the sweet life. But when a cheque for his membership dues at an exclusive club bounces, Henry discovers that he has managed to burn through his entire trust fund inheritance. Henry resorts to asking his uncle and former guardian (James Coco as Harry) for a loan, which Harry begrudgingly provides. But the $50,000 to cover Henry’s most urgent debts must be paid back in six weeks, or else he will have to hand over every remaining possession to his uncle.
With no apparent skills or work experience to draw on, Henry has no idea how he will ever repay the money. Until his butler Harold (George Rose) suggests that regaining his wealth is as easy as Henry marrying one of New York society’s many rich heiresses. The perfect candidate arrives in the form of the nerdy, clumsy, totally unpretentious and even more clueless Henrietta (Elaine May).
The first thing that really struck me with A New Leaf was its pacing. This is not how movies are made or stories are told these days. Henry’s credentials as a shallow, materialistic, selfish, denial filled asshole are established in the opening scenes. Then they’re cemented over and over and over again. His dire financial situation and plan to marry his way out of it are also established pretty early, but it’s almost half an hour before Henrietta is introduced.
If A New Leaf was made today, Henry and Henrietta would meet in the first 10 minutes and much will they / wont they mad cappery would ensue as we would see Henry’s rough exterior give away to a genuine, loveable heart. But May’s screenplay takes so much time to expose and reiterate just how ruthless Henry is, it makes his extreme actions seem almost realistic and believable, instead of just hoping the audience will suspend enough disbelief to simply allow this craziness for the sake of enjoying a silly comedy.
In his later years, Walter Matthau specialized in grumpy old men roles. In earlier performances, I’ve seen him tackle being the everyday guy, and kind of a schlub. But even as grumpy or every day schlub, there was always a warmness to Mathau. One of the real triumphs of A New Leaf is bringing out Mathau’s unrelenting asshole side. There isn’t a single redeeming moment for Henry, and such an unlikable central character should make a move hard to watch. But May’s work as a director and writer behind the camera, as well as her immense sweetness as Henrietta in front of the camera, make A New Leaf both immensely dark and goofily light at the same time.