There’s such a sharp observational quality to the films of Elaine May, as heightened as their comedy can be. You get the sense that May has such a deep understanding of people and relationships, and rather than simply recreating what she sees, she builds these hilarious concepts out of them. Her films can be ridiculous, but something about them always rings true. It reminds me a lot of the more recent work of Rachel Bloom, specifically the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The more I think about it, the more that show feels like heiress apparent to May’s comedies. Both construct elaborate comedic ideas on top of simple observable truths about human dynamics. And Bloom would be right at home alongside May as a scrappy Jewish comedienne.
If May hones in on anything in A New Leaf, though, it’s the inherent hilarity of a bourgeois lifestyle. The montage early on when a newly poor Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) says sorrowful goodbyes to all the absurd markers of his old wealth is hysterical. One bit has Graham sadly miming with a riding crop and then breaking down in tears. Just the concept of rich people seems hilarious to May, with all their silly dignities and meaningless obsessions. And she has a clear-eyed view of what being wealthy means in America. “You’re going to be poor in the only real sense of the word,” Graham’s butler tells him early on, “in that you will not be rich.” There is no world outside of wealth in A New Leaf; Graham’s first option when he’s lost all his money is suicide. It plays in the honest absurdism of the film’s comedy — the absurdity of a world where money is all there is to life, and yet the fundamental truth of that outlook in a capitalist society. The nonchalance with which one of Graham’s high society contacts introduces a couple named the Hitlers (“You’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?”) reflects the ironic detachment from decency that comes along with such highfalutin behavior. I’ve always thought that to make a good comedy about the wealthy you need to understand what wealth really means, and May very much does.
To keep speaking about May, she’s terrific as the nebbishy botanist heiress Henrietta. She casts herself in an unforgiving role; she must ride the fine line of being not so likable that Graham comes off as a complete jerk but not so irritating that Graham seems a hero for wanting to be rid of her. Her charm has to shine through, so that when Graham finds himself having fallen for her, the viewer has as well. It’s such a difficult challenge for a performer, and May just nails it. To do that on top of directing the film is nothing short of miraculous.
Matthau’s great too, as the perpetually annoyed bachelor who wants nothing more than to be alone with his money until the loss of that money forces him to seek companionship. He manages to keep you laughing at him even as his character descends further into a sinister mania. The late bit where he daydreams about all the ways Henrietta could be killed on a trip to the Adirondacks is on its face horrific, yet Matthau’s barely suppressed glee at the prospect sells the hilarity. He reminded me a bit of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, though the comedic stylings of that film are a far cry from A New Leaf and Reynolds Woodcock much more a fusspot than a grump. The way both characters describe their lifelong disinterest in women could be read as a suggestion of queerness, too. I know Matthau’s disinterest in any and all people is more than a little relatable to some friends of mine.
I read that A New Leaf was ripped from May’s hands during the editing phase and that she was so unhappy she tried to have her name taken off the final release. I can’t speak, of course, to the relative quality of her (apparently three hour) cut of the film, but I can say that the existing version of A New Leaf is totally delightful. It feels like an Elaine May film through and through, whatever butchery happened to it behind the scenes. I’d be thrilled if May’s cut ever saw the light of day, but with the final cut being as good as it is, it’s hard to feel desperate for such a release.