A New Leaf (Elaine May / U.S., 1971):

Bluebeard and the Spaz, a magnificently droll foxtrot. All the aging epicurean (Walter Matthau) has is his "devotion to form," an unreliable Ferrari convertible embodies the leaky cocoon of luxury. Beckett the lawyer (William Redfield) spells it out, patiently: "You’ve lost all your money, you’ve exhausted your capital and therefore your income, you..." A handheld camera follows him on the streets of Manhattan after he’s bopped on the head by reality, the word "poor" rolls dolorously in his jowls. With bankruptcy around the corner, the ex-playboy strikes a deal with his uncle (James Coco, wielding a mean pepper-mill scepter) and sets out to marry another fortune. Miss Right turns out to be a plaintive frump (Elaine May) with a vast inheritance and zero social skills. Botany is the heroine’s field, her goal is to discover and name a new species of plant, a modest stab at eternity. "If you can’t be immortal," snaps Matthau, "why bother?" Between Tillie’s Punctured Romance and Resnais’ Wild Grass is May’s directorial debut, a beautifully refined exposition of screwball comedy’s brackish side. Love here is declared kneeling on broken glass, that’s the singular absurdity of her cosmos, the wine cooler spilled on the carpet might match the modernist splotches hanging on the aesthete’s walls. The comic invention is to be savored: "Carbon on the valves," the toilet flush that gives way to the wedding march, "You’re all sticky, Henrietta," Matthau’s sublime sigh of irritation as his new wife removes her huge Harold Lloyd specs and slips into a tangled nightgown. May originally delivered a three-hour film and saw it recut nearly by half, though no amount of studio hacking can efface George Rose as a valet out of Lubitsch, the elegant lewdness of Doris Roberts’ winks, or the sharp tang of the auteur’s sensibility. The punchline is a Paterian epiphany on the edge of a watery abyss, grudgingly yet profoundly moving. Nichols’ The Fortune is a friendly rival’s riposte. With Jack Weston, Renée Taylor, Graham Jervis, and David Doyle.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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