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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A NEW LEAF (1971)

Elaine May’s peculiar debut as writer/director/actor goes beyond the usual incompetence that passed for New York Film School comedy technique at the time, she seems actively contemptuous of the medium. How else to explain the consistently lumpy look, amateurish staging and hack editing in this oddly cast romance. Walter Matthau, with an on-and-off Mid-Atlantic accent, stars as an upper-crust twit who discovers he’s run out of cash. Under the gun, he finds a rich, available nebbish, ripe for the plucking, in Elaine May, only to wind up fixing her complicated financial estate & affairs while growing attached to her flaky personality. Fairly standard doings, with a story arc and enough quirky lines to give off some rooting interest. But May’s shot choice is so consistently ‘off,’ that a decent camera set up near the start of the third act (a simple staircase angle) creates a jolt, a jolt of unexpected adequacy, unintentionally pulling you out of the pic. Pro that he is, Matthau finds a way to get his laughs, and there’s a tidy piece of character comedy from George Rose, extra-sec as his valet. As for May the comic actress? She simply hasn’t the physical chops to carry a leading role that needs a Jean Arthur or a Judy Holliday. But at least she doesn’t give off flop sweat like the rest of her cast.

DOUBLE-BILL: May gave up directing after HEARTBREAK KID/’72; MIKEY AND NICKY/’76 and that infamous financial fiasco, ISHTAR/’87 which, taken in small doses, is pretty funny.

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