“A New Leaf” with Walter Matthau, is about a man who is in love with his own moneyed existence and nothing or no one else. He doesn’t play well with others. Sharing is a nasty word. He doesn’t miss friends or family. He has his exquisite things, his haute couture wardrobe, his luxury apartment, his manservant. Who could ask for anything more. Except. Then the money runs out. Has been running out like a leak in the dam ever since he received his inheritance and lived beyond his principle.
A privileged and wealthy child of society’s upper crust, Walter Matthau as Henry Graham is chauffeured through life as the center of his own little universe. Barely conscious of others except as they pertain to him, his closest human connections are his manservant, Harold (George Rose), and his attorney (Mike Nichols), who must get through to Henry that he has squandered his inheritance. He is broke.
The first scenes of Henry wafting through life on a golden cloud, set his character up as — not so much cold and uncaring as . . . oblivious . . .in totally ignoring his attorney’s frantic attempts at contact.
When they finally do get together, it is only because Matthau wants the attorney to take care of a bounced check. The following scene in which the lawyer tries to explain to Matthau that there is no more money, is brilliantly funny, with Matthau’s Henry Graham unable to accept what is staring him in the face.
When the ugly truth finally gets through, it sends Matthau on a round of visiting “friends” to bid a stupored farewell to: his tailor, his maitre’d, etc.
His next contact is home and his manservant Harold, who has been in his employ for many years. When confronted with the new circumstances, Matthau ask what Harold will do.
“Quit and turn in my two weeks’ notice,” he says.
This may be the first time Matthau sees the humble servant as anything but another one of the exquisite “things” he owns.
Matthau and Harold discuss his options. Suicide is the first that comes to mind. But, happily, dear Harold holds out a reprieve. Marriage. Marriage? To a woman? Here, let me interject that other reviews I’ve read call Matthau’s character a playboy. If they’d watched the movie, they would know he was far from a playboy. True, he was single and lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but on his own terms. In my character assessment, Matthau comes across as almost sexless. It’s apparent he knows about the birds and the bees, but speaks of the marriage bed almost mechanically. He’s healthy, has the right parts, and knows what’s required. Doesn’t sound like a playboy to me. He’s speaking of himself as a very expensive purchase, like a suit from Savile Row — the texture and fabric of the highest quality.
So, Matthau goes shopping for an heiress. Which conjures up a couple of hilarious scenes only Matthau could do. He eventually finds one who is perfect — for him. A plain, klutzy wallflower, Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), who is the ultimate heiress and absent minded professor — of botany. In one way, Henry Graham and Henrietta Lowell are mirror images in that they both live in a world of their own — Henry in his luxuried world and Henrietta in her world of green. Plants are her life and she is seeking the Holy Grail — a new species that will be named for her. But unlike Henry, Miss Lowell dreams of Mr. Right. She is like a rare specimen, seeking the perfect soil in which to grow.
But if you think this is just another sappy love story, think again. Henry is a recalcitrant specimen fighting to stay in his own terrarium until death do you part. Henrietta’s, not his.
The wonder and glory of this movie is not the humor, though it is there in spades. It is the subtlety. Things you might miss if not paying close attention. These are two human beings, separated from their kind by their own repressed and tiny worlds, neither able to communicate in “normal” ways.
For instance, after their marriage, the scene of Henrietta sporting her “Grecian” nightie, goes down in my all-time top in hysterical screen moments, as the man of style patiently tries to “fix” his new bride’s farcical attire.
And later, notice when you see the frumpy Henrietta sporting new tailored and stylish clothing. She didn’t buy them. He did. But any kind of tender emotions are hidden under, and mixed up with, a lifetime of self-centeredness and are hardly recognizable. She belongs to him and therefore she must be as exquisite as he can possibly make her. He can’t do a thing about her floundering like a fish out of water, but he can patiently cut the tags off her new clothes as she’s headed off for class and brush the breakfast crumbs off her chest.
I have heard this movie called a dark, or black comedy. I have seen those. Don’t care for most of them. I don’t see how they can come up with that for this movie. Absolutely a misnomer to me.
So, I highly recommend this beautiful comedy as a movie you won’t soon forget. I’ve already watched it twice and I’m in the market for another movie buff to watch it with me again.