A NEW LEAF (1971) – It’s never too late to turn over

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A New Leaf is the best movie W.C. Fields never made.

That is completely intended as a compliment, and it in no way belittles Walter Matthau, who delivers a fine lead performance. But there is no mistaking the spirit of Fields in Matthau, whose body language and voice inflections deliver most of the laughs that writer/director/co-star Elaine May doesn’t steal away from him.

The movie is a whimsical black comedy, if there is such a thing. Matthau plays Henry Graham, a pampered man who has depended all his life on the kindness of rich not-quite-strangers (his well-off uncle and his accountant, among others) and his trust fund for his livelihood. Henry has now run through his trust fund and the goodwill of said strangers, and in a very funny scene (one among many), his accountant (William Redfield) has to meticulously and repeatedly explain to Henry why and how he has no more money to burn through.

Having no particular skills or drive in life, Henry concludes that he must find a rich woman to marry and enable him to continue the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Eventually he finds the easiest of targets — heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), a nondescript botanist and teacher who practically trips over herself with her every move.

Through a rapid series of machinations, Graham takes charge of Henrietta’s life and bank account, nonchalantly planning to eventually off Henrietta and continue to live off her riches. But gradually, a funny little thing called conscience slips into Henry’s crevisses, and having never previously had such feelings — in himself, or for anyone else — he is at a loss at how to cope with it.

This was May’s writing-directing movie debut, and she never strikes a wrong note. The dialogue is crisp, and every loving shot is held just long enough to make its comic point.

May also gets wonderful performances from the entire cast, including herself. As with the heroine in her later The Heartbreak Kid, at first we seem meant to laugh derisively at mousy Henrietta and her uncouth ways. But just like the flora she catalogs, Henrietta begins to blossom under Henry’s (reluctant) tutelage.

The rest of the cast similarly blossoms under May’s direction, including Redfield, James Coco, Jack Weston, Doris Roberts, and most notably George Rose as Henry’s Jiminy Cricket of a butler. They all underplay beautifully and deliver a smashing comedy almost nonchalantly. A New Leaf was initially a box-office flop but has long since become a cult classic, its comic bloom never fading over the years.

THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) – Beauty and the nebbishy beast

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Why do we always want what we can’t have? And what would happen if we actually got it? Director Elaine May, working from a script by Neil Simon based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, examines the answers under a harsh microscope in the bitter black comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

In this instance, the “we” is Jewish nebbish Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a getting-by sporting goods salesman. Shortly after his Jewish honeymoon with the former Lila Kolodny (Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin) begins, he is alone on the beach when he meets what he can’t have — a perky WASP blonde named Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Having endured a road trip from New York with his newlywed bride — during which the thought of 50 ensuing years with his less-than-perfect wife has solidified in his mind — he sees idyllic freedom in the form of flitting, flirty Kelly. Now all he has do is ditch his new bride to get what he thinks he has always wanted. Simple, right?

Far from it. He does his best to talk his way out of everything pre-Lila and seems to have snookered everyone — except for Kelly’s rich, tough-as-nails father (Eddie Albert).

It’s definitely a black comedy, with hardly a likable person in it (except, perhaps, for naive Lila). But the movie never pushes for its effects. May simply examines this roundelay of people in long, rich takes, documentary style.

You can easily believe that Lenny is some kind of salesman. He uses endless strings of almost-convincing lies to connive Lila while doing everything he can to convince Kelly and her father of his sincerity. Once Lenny starts on this quest of acceptance from the WASPs, he deludes himself into believing that the sincerity of his cause is enough to carry him through the rest of his life — a life for which he has no current plan, except to win over Kelly.

I have only a couple of quibbles with The Heartbreak Kid. The movie does all it can to uglify poor Lily — giving her character quirks to make her look shnooky, lathering her in sunburn makeup. I’m guessing that 1972 audiences derisively laughed at her in contrast to Kelly’s WASP perfection, but I found Lila’s quirks rather endearing, as any truly loving groom would. I suppose that’s part of the point the movie is trying to make, but I think the movie tries a little too hard to make Lila a slobbery house pet in Lenny’s eyes.

My other problem is with Mr. Corcoran, Kelly’s watchdog father. Eddie Albert (also nominated for an Oscar) is absolutely fabulous, subtly showing the dad’s simmering dislike for Lenny with only body language and a few well-chosen words (as opposed to Lenny, of course, who can’t shut up). It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t explore the father’s uncomfortable fixation on his daughter a little more deeply.

But in the end, these are minor faults. Without getting too deep about it, what The Heartbreak Kid is really about is how cinema (at least up to 1972) shaped people’s ideas of what true beauty really is, and how it made some people (such as stalker-y Lenny) want to go overboard in order to obtain it.

(My thanks to Debbie of the blog Moon in Gemini for her recommendation of this fascinating and funny movie.)