Elaine May’s career came crashing down with Ishtar, though it is an occasion where the scorn a flop received is deserved and the only reason there’s not a review on the site of it is because I quit half way through, and it’s incredibly rare I do that with a movie. That she was so poorly treated by Hollywood is unfair however, even if she was responsible for a film which went over budget and did poorly at the box office, as pretty much every other director out there has a similar tale to tell.
May has also proven over the years that she has a singular comic voice as well, being responsible for the screenplays of hits like Heaven Can Wait, Tootsie and The Bird Cage, and she burst on to the scene in an impressive manner with A New Leaf which was not only the first film she’d ever written and played the female lead in but also the first one she directed and while not a flashy affair it’s a very appealing and amusing film with two great performances at the centre of it.
A not quite black comedy, it’s a very dark grey kind of piece as Walther Matthau’s trust fund snob Henry Graham is told very early on in the film that he’s run out of money, having lived beyond his means for far too long. Graham all but goes in to shock upon hearing the news, driving around town as if it’s one final farewell tour of all of the places he used to frequent, not thinking for a second that the solution would be to get a job or work of some kind.
Graham’s valet Harold (George Rose) has half of a solution though, in that Henry should get married, with Henry very, very quickly putting a second part of the plan in to motion where he intends to murder his betrothed soon after the wedding. After managing to borrow $50,000 from his very, very reluctant Uncle Harry (James Coco) he has but six weeks to find someone or he’ll have to give Harry everything he owns, and there’s something of a problem in that Henry appears to be asexual, that or just plain scared of an even vaguely dominant women, as he finds someone who is interested in him but when she begins to take off her bikini he amusingly shrieks in terror ” No! Don’t let them out”.
Other dates go badly too, and with little over a week to go things are looking bleak for Henry, that is until he meets the clumsy and neurotic Henrietta Loweel (Elaine May) and once he’s ascertained that she is rich but also isolated and family free, he decides she’s his perfect victim and so goes in to flirtatious mode, even though he struggles to find her interesting, commenting “She is not suitable, she is primitive, she has no spirit, no wit, no conversation, and she has to be vacuumed every time she eats”. Despite this he bones up on botany so they have something in common, and manages to win her round surprisingly quickly, and the two are soon wed, but will Henry have the gumption to kill? Or will Henrietta somehow survive? I shan’t spoil it here but I doubt anyone would find the ending too objectionable.
Matthau’s grumpy and egotistical Henry is what makes the film so much fun, it’s a joy to see him suffer, especially when he has to come out with lines like “No, kneeling on broken glass is my favourite past time, it keeps me from slouching” while wooing Henrietta. May manages to make the graceless and gawky Henrietta an appealing creation despite her flaws, and her warmth and kindness make you hope that she may somehow avoid Henry’s murderous machinations. The film has a strong supporting cast too in the form of lawyer Andrew (Jack Weston) who despises Henry and clearly adores Henrietta, while Henry’s valet Harold is always on hand to support his undeserving master. Though the direction is a tad mundane May has crafted a script with some extremely memorable dialogue, and though it’s a tiny bit slight plot wise this is generally an extremely amiable comedy.