Grade: B
1971, 102 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 (Mono)
Bonus features: B
Clip montage
Amazon link

Looking ahead to New Year’s resolutions, if the new leaf you’re turning over this year is to be more receptive to older and subtler comedies, you might start with A New Leaf—an understated 1971 film featuring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) and Elaine May.

Matthau stars as an arrogant playboy who suddenly finds himself penniless. Desperate, he decides to take his butler’s advice and use a loan from his skinflint Uncle Harry (James Coco) to maintain his status and try to get a rich woman to marry him. There’s a catch: if he doesn’t get her to accept his proposal within six weeks, he forfeits all he owns to his uncle.

It’s the kind of premise that opens the door wide for slapstick and humor that’s a throwback to the old screwball comedies. But May—a founding member of the pre-Second City improv group Compass Players in Chicago, who often worked with Mike Nichols—writes every scene with tongue in cheek and crafts a black comedy instead.

As the socially awkward and übernerdy Henrietta Lowell, May plays well off of the naturally acerbic Matthau. Henrietta, whom Henry meets at a party and boorishly defends when she spills her drink on the host’s expensive rug, is an introverted heiress who teaches botany at Columbia University and dreams of discovering a new plant species. But it’s she who’s ripe for the picking.

The plot revolves around the obnoxious playboy’s attempts to woo her—something he clearly feels is beneath him—and then dispose of her, making it look like an accident. But of course one of the main conventions of a romantic comedy (even one where boy meets girl, wants to marry girl, then kill girl) is that opposites attract. Will that trope kick in before Henry finds a subtle way to do away with Henrietta?

Matthau and May are the main reason to watch this film, as they make the most of every scene with nuanced mannerisms and reactions. Compared to today’s comedies, this one feels less contrived and more leisurely paced. May directs this comedy with consistent restraint, as you get the feeling that each of the character actors with strong TV comedy backgrounds is holding back to play characters in a more realistic manner. The flip side is that while there are clever lines here and there, some might wish for still more snappy dialogue, however contrived it might be.

One diversion for older viewers will be to pick out those familiar TV faces, and plenty of them turn up, including Jack Weston (from the old series-with-chimps The Hathaways), Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), David Doyle (Bosley on Charlie’s Angels), Renée Taylor (The Nanny), and William Redfield (The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Maude).

Like so many comedies from the early ‘70s, A New Leaf gradually builds momentum and rewards viewers with a satisfying third act that makes you feel as if you’ve spent your time wisely. But you have to accept the film’s pace and style, and just sit back and enjoy the actors and the way that this story unspectacularly unfolds.

Cinephiles will appreciate this Signature Edition of what has become a bit of a cult film, with a new restoration form a 4K scan of the original camera negative, a commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smikler, an interview with A New Leaf assistant editor Angelo Corroo, an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the original source material (“The Green Heart”) that inspired the screenplay, and director Amy Heckerling talking on-camera about women in Hollywood at the time A New Leaf was filmed.