We know what you’re thinking: why is STARBURST reviewing a rom-com? But as the more astute of you will notice, it doesn’t star Jennifer Aniston or Matthew McConaughey, meaning this might not be any ordinary rom-com. It might be more accurately described as a black comedy and, as it’s hardly been seen since it flopped at the box office in 1971, it very much qualifies as “cult”. In fact, those who have seen it have been surprisingly vocal about getting it released on Blu-ray for many years, and that’s a good indicator of “cult”. And why have they been so noisy to get it out there? Because this, dear reader, is a gem.
Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is a playboy with a trust fund and he hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. Unlikable and with no feelings for his fellow man, we feel no sympathy when his accountant (the brilliant William Redfield – you remember him from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) hilariously explains that his insistence at living beyond his means his entire adult life has left him penniless. He briefly considers suicide but his butler (George Rose) convinces him to marry any wealthy heiress that will have him. Henry is horrified until he realises there’d be nothing stopping him murdering his bride as soon as they’re wed. Matthau is in fine form as we cringe at his largely doomed attempts at suitoring until he comes across Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May, who also wrote and directed), a proto-geek botany professor with seemingly no clue as to what is going on around her. Brilliantly, her father was “an industrialist or a composer - something like that”. They marry despite the protestations of her lawyer (because he, like everyone around her, is after her money) and Henry plots her death, impervious to the fact that she worships the ground he walks on to the point of naming a new fern after her husband (the titular new leaf). Can you guess how this is going to end? Let’s just say it’s a painfully “feel good” climax. Yep, it might be black but it’s still a rom-com.
The joy of the film is down to the script and the cast’s performance. Every situation is perfect; when Henry confronts Henrietta’s corrupt staff (because it takes a cynical gold digger to spot a bunch of cynical gold diggers) you actually root for him; when he and his butler follow Henrietta around to remove crumbs (“a light sprinkling, sir”) and labels from her expensive clothes, you can’t help but admire their dedication to keeping up appearances. Henry is so dedicated to maintaining the life of the idle rich that his sheer contemptibility becomes a comic asset. And then there’s that ending. If you come away from this without a smile on your face then you’re bigger sourpusses than we are .
Any flaws? Not really, although Elaine May is probably a bit too glamorous to be 100% convincing as the apparently unattractive Henrietta. Those glasses aren’t fooling anyone. But this is very much her movie and we might even forgive her for Ishtar (1987). But then again, maybe not.
Special Features: The Bluebeard of Happiness (video essay by David Cairns) / 32-page booklet
A NEW LEAF (1971) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ELAINE MAY / STARRING: WALTER MATTHAU, ELAINE MAY, JACK WESTON, GEORGE ROSE, JAMES COCO, WILLIAM REDFIELD / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW