As Elaine May’s feature debut, A New Leaf finds the comedienne at the end of the first stage of career and at the onset of the next. Prior to the 1971 film, May had established herself as one of the most innovative comics of the postwar period, developing with Mike Nichols the modern iteration of improv comedy with sketches and bits that circled around anxieties and perfunctory social mores to escalate laughs through ruptures of discomfort. With Nichols typically planted as the increasingly flustered, everyman simpleton, May would launch into knotty setups and cluster-bomb punchlines derived either from her own escalation of hysteria or, even better, a bone-dry deadpan that flew in the face of Nichols’ red-faced embarrassment. Even among the fertile realms of ‘50s and ‘60s comedy, there was no one else like her (including her partner), and no comic’s material from the period fits so naturally within present-day styles.

May’s arid, cutting sense of humor finds a breakthrough, though, in the loosened restrictions of the ‘70s. No longer forced to adhere to the tightly bound rulebook of early TV, May produces a film that takes throwback, ‘30s screwball as its foundation but shoots off in demented, borderline nihilistic directions. Its protagonist, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), flips the script on the usual screwball straight-man. Like many of his progenitors, Henry belongs to high-class society, though we meet him as the hammer falls on his lifetime of idle wealth, frittered away on luxury with no incoming revenue to offset the costs. Henry, listening to his lawyer explain his complete insolvency, reacts like a child who knows only that checks are meant to have value, scribbling numbers on paper to make the problem go away without understanding that there is no number left to draw from in his account. Matthau plays the scene with a completely slack, almost innocent face, casting Henry as someone so far removed from the actual issue of money that its sudden, critically important relevance to his predicament is as difficult for him to understand as a new language.

When Henry’s plight finally sinks in, May treats the viewer to one of the funniest scenes in the history of cinema: a distillation of rotted wealth in the form of a half-mad, publicly-grieving Henry roaming city streets in his lemon of a Ferrari, wearing a motorcycle helmet as he bids soft goodbyes to the objects and locales of his expended comfort. The car can barely handle this sad tour, sputtering and failing on him in a mockery of his last shreds of dignity. May leans on Matthau’s natural hangdog expression to lend Henry a sense of pitiable idiocy that prefigures a dark turn toward self-survival when, in a fit of inspiration, the old man cajoles a wealthy uncle (James Coco, looking like a decadent Roman emperor in contemporary New York City) into an agreement to give him an allowance in exchange for marrying.

So far, so standard, at least until Henry settles on a possible bride: wealthy heiress and amateur horticulturist Henrietta (May). If Henry’s total sadsack routine prefigures many modern indie comedy heroes, Henrietta, with her incessantly disheveled appearance and antic nervosa, reads like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl parody decades before the fact. Henrietta is every nervous tic rolled into one, a series of glasses adjustments, eyes shifting away from direct contact and muttering distraction. Amazingly, Henrietta manages to be both the screw and the straight man, modest and extremely introverted yet given to catastrophes that emanate from her clumsiness. For much of the film, Henry acts as a total bystander, not even the victim of chaos so much as the sole spectator of Henrietta’s simultaneous roles as perpetrator and victim. The only way that Henry can even reassert his sense of self around her, and to perfect his plan for renewed riches, is to decide on a plan to first marry then kill her.

This lurch into Bluebeard territory elevates A New Leaf above its generational peer What’s Up, Doc? as more than a tribute to pure screwball; it becomes instead a fearless extension of the screwball legacy. May, already a dexterous verbal comic thanks to decades of radio work, introduces a physical comedy that only rarely had a chance to shine. On the couple’s wedding night, Henrietta gets caught in her nightgown, her face covered and blind to the look of absolute fury on Henry’s face as he, in a perfectly calm voice, attempts to coach her out of her clothes. The scene carries on for an agonizing amount of time, inviting the audience to almost sympathize with Henry’s rage even as the bit gets funnier and funnier for its protraction.

The finale, in which a rafting trip gone wrong presents Henry with the opportunity to let nature handle his business for him, stands out as one of the bleakest segments in a decade dominated by somber, angry cinema. That it ends on a tidy conclusion only aggravates its grim humor: when Henry’s conscience tugs at him, his whole body sags with exasperation at this spike of morality, and Henrietta’s enduring cluelessness about her beau’s hatred creates a nasty tension of expectation versus reality. The final contrast, of a woman lovingly grateful for the most basic demonstration of humanity and a man assuaged from his most primal state only by a stroke of his ego, is as succinct and brutal a summary of the battle of sexes as has ever been put in the movies. It’s the only time in cinema when two lovers walking into the sunset has had the feel of them traipsing toward the cataclysmic eruption of an atomic bomb.

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