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Elaine May & Walter Matthau in the underrated 'A New Leaf'
Kimberley Jones, 9:30am, Tue. Sep. 4, 2012
courtesy of http://matthau.com
Walter Matthau with his director and co-star Elaine May
In the delectably weird A New Leaf (Olive Films, $24.95), there’s no tearing your eyes off of Walter Matthau’s magnificent, craggy puss. But his writer/director/co-star Elaine May's no slouch either.

As a Hollywood player, May never had an easy go of it. The director of only four films, she regularly butted heads with studios and collaborators – finally with Ishtar, the legendary flop that ended her career as a director, but firstly with A New Leaf, her 1970 debut that was recut by Paramount Pictures. The edit pushed her reportedly dark satire into daffier terrain, an action that so incensed May she tried to have the film blocked from release.

Matthau plays Henry Graham, a leisure-class layabout who discovers at film’s beginning that he’s burned through the last of his trust fund. He’s a howler here, staggering the streets, moaning thunderstruck, “I am pooooooor.” Even funnier is the followup: Wearing the half-smile of the elegantly doomed, Henry revisits the chic restaurant Lutèce, the Racquet Club, and his stables once more – a dying man saying his last goodbyes.

Henry borrows $50,000 to staunch the bleeding, but it comes at a heavy price: If he can’t pay the loan back within six weeks, he’ll forfeit all his property. So what’s an impoverished gentleman with no discernible skills to do? Marry well, and marry fast. Henry sets his sights on Henrietta Lowell, a socially inept botanist and orphaned heiress in oversized owl-frames. Henry’s original assessment of Henrietta is that she is “primitive.” After she accidentally spills hooch on his white llama carpeting, he downgrades her to “feral” and begins plotting her murder – once he’s married into her money, of course.

May plays his intended (she cast herself just to avoid the studio’s original choice, Carol Channing). She has some sublime comic bits as the unsure Henrietta – she moves like a mouse and is about scaled to that size, too – but this is Matthau’s show. He’s marvelous: uncharacteristically proper, seething with self-righteous indignation, and sadistically twinkle-eyed as he researches the poison potential of garden additives.

It’s unclear how much of May’s original vision was gutted – this new Olive Films release disappointingly offers zero extras – or if her director’s cut exists anymore, making the backstory an irresistible what-if. Still: The film that did survive is pretty swell: a slight, winsome thing of absurdist burbles cut with a sentimental streak and, above all else, a nonpareil performance by Matthau, whose jowls alone deserve a monument to their majesty.

ALSO OUT NOW:

Hometown teen-wunderkind Emily Hagins’ third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance (MPI Home Video, Blu-ray $29.98, DVD $24.98), hits shelves today. The Chronicle’s Marc Savlov spoke with her in 2010 just as she was going into production on her high-school vampire picture.

A different kind of love-sucks story, The Five-Year Engagement (Universal, Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo pack, $34.98) underperformed this spring at the box office, but it’s worth a second look: We rather liked the picture and its leads, Jason Segel (who co-scripted) and Emily Blunt, who play “rational, relatable adults, which may be an unsexy selling point for a romantic comedy, but that attention to authenticity elevates the likable, low-stakes film.”

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