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.

CRISIS IN SIX SCENES – Woody Allen is his old(er) self

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If you enjoy vintage Woody Allen, don’t let the critics discourage you from seeing his Amazon TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes. In TV terms, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and it wasn’t intended to do so. It’s a screwball comedy that delivers a fair share of laughs — a far greater share, in fact, than any of Allen’s most recent movie comedies have garnered.

The six-episode series is set in the 1960’s. Allen plays Sid (or “S.J.,” in his more pretentious moments) Munsinger, a semi-successful novelist and former copywriter who is now trying to sell a TV sitcom. Elaine May plays Kay, a marriage counselor and Sid’s quietly grounded wife. Their happy middle-class existence gets thrown for a loop by Lennie (a surprisingly funny Miley Cyrus), a radical on the run who needs a place to hide out while she plans her exodus to Cuba.

Lennie has an unexpected effect on everyone who saunters through the Munsinger household. She radicalizes Alan (John Magaro), a young friend of the family who is already engaged to a girl Sid had set him up with. And Lennie transforms Kay’s thinking to the point that she brings Chairman Mao’s writings and similar Communist-fueled work to the book club she runs.

This could have been a one-joke concept, but Allen gets a lot of funny plot threads out of it. Lennie dismisses the Munsingers as “limousine liberals,” but meanwhile she’s eating them out of house and home while she bemoans the children overseas who are starving to death. And you haven’t lived until you have seen a bunch of elderly book-club members get their revolutionary fire lit. (When one of them suggests that they all go to the local draft board and protest by sitting naked in front of it, one prim woman says that stripping to her bra and panties is as much as she can handle.)

The worst that you can say about the series is that it’s a bit leisurely paced, but in these days of rapid-fire entertainment, that might just be a virtue. And the final episode wraps things up in best farcical style, as a parade of ever more eccentric visitors come through Sid’s front door.

Cable TV has now set the bar so high that many viewers and critics take it as a personal offense if each new series doesn’t try to change the face of television. Crisis in Six Scenes is funny — just simply funny. Would that more TV comedies would aim for that modest goal.