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New Leaf, A (Blu-ray Review)

24 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, James Coco.

Embraced by cult movie fanciers and even some big-name critics at the time, Elaine May’s litigated debut comedy didn’t fare very well with the masses after going over budget and its shooting schedule (see also Mikey and Nicky and her career-ending Ishtar for a repeat of this syndrome). How did her 1972 original version of The Heartbreak Kid ever come off without too many production hitches before hitting one into the seats at least in terms of artistic success (“a Reggie shot” as my friends and I used to term a movie of its caliber).

May is a great talent, and Leaf — inspired by a Jack Ritchie short story called The Green Heart — is a droll movie with some of the slightly misshapen tone you’d expect from a project that ran three hours in the writer-director’s version, which sounds as if it might have ended up being as dark as, say, Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. As the movie stands in this 102-minute take, formerly moneyed heir Matthau (now broke) marries for money and toys with knocking off his wealthy bride (May) — but (well … let’s not spoil it). In the alternate version (is it lost forever or maybe in May’s closet?), murders of other parties were apparently committed.

The normal post-stardom Matthau role often finds the actor cast as some sort of aggressive minor variation on the “Whiplash” Willie Gingrich character that won him the supporting Oscar for Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. In this case, he’s a far less certain dude — at least at the beginning and before his take-charge redemption becomes a key plot point in (once more) at least this version. Having blown his fortune’s principal in full “what me, worry?” fashion, Matthau even has to endure his disgusted financial advisor offering to lend him a few hundred dollars out of his own pocket so that no one will accuse the advisor of have failed to cover all bases from his own professional point of view. 

May’s own performance is quite touching, and she goes almost as far to make herself seem physically unattractive as she did with her own real-life daughter (Jeannie Berlin) in Heartbreak. (Actually, May has kind of a cute frame here, though the emphasis is hardly on that.) She’s a comic-book kind of botanist (large glasses frames here) who is always searching out some small species that might get her into the books. There’s also some good work by familiar faces like Jack Weston and James Coco, as well as by face-is-familiar types who aren’t household names unless you’re part of a SAG household.

Oddly enough — and I blanked when I looked at the disc jacket — the rating here is “G.” With the studio-imposed cut, May made a very sweet little comedy — which, in a way, is why she sued Paramount over the result and tried to get her name removed from the credits, a move that made sense only on principle (though that’s not always a bad reason).

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