AMAD Special Tribute: Rian Johnson on A NEW LEAF (1971) Carbon on the valves!
Published at: Jan. 14, 2009, 3:25 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of the week-long series of A Movie A Day Tribute articles. Yesterday, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ director Edgar Wright took a look at Brit-Sexploiterror flick VIRGIN WITCH (click here to give it a read!) and today we have Rian Johnson, director of the great BRICK and the just as great upcoming BROTHERS BLOOM who is chiming in on an obscure gem starring Walter Matthau and directed by Elaine May called A NEW LEAF.
Now, AMAD regulars will recall the pairing of these two in one of the final AMADs: CALIFORNIA SUITE. Their chemistry there was fantastic and reading Rian's description of the movie (and hear the audio clips he provided) really get me jonesing to seek this one out.
Hope you enjoy today's Tribute! Here's Mr. Johnson!
Hey folks. Thanks to Quint for letting me hijack his Movie a Day column to bring you some thoughts on a little seen gem.
You've probably seen Elaine May in the Woody Allen film "Small Time Crooks," playing a kooky woman named May who Allen (in a shocking blast of age-appropriateness) falls for. But in 1971 to most people Elaine May was just a voice. A dark, smokey, and very very funny voice.
May first came on the comedy scene in the 1960s through her brilliant improv sketches with Mike Nichols. If you've never heard them before, I won't be offended if you go listen to a few right now. Click here now!This article will be here when you come back. In fact, I might insist on it. Do it. Go.
Brilliant, right? Deadpan, dark and hilarious stuff. When May and Nichols broke up their act Nichols went on to direct a couple era-defining films, while May found success in the theater. Then in 1971 she made her directing debut, with "A New Leaf."
It's the story of Henry Graham, played by the great Walter Matthau. Graham is a New Yorker living for one thing and one thing alone: to be rich. He was born into money, and is perfectly content to live out his days doing nothing but spending it on expensive clothes, exclusive clubs, and a priceless Ferrari which he doesn't know how to drive. Like Chauncy Gardner with a dash of greed or Billy Madison in nicer suits, Graham is a simple and happy man. Until his money runs out.
Faced with the abyss of a life without money, Graham hatches a plan: marry a rich wife, then bump her off. Unfortunately for him, the woman he chooses is Henrietta Lowell, played by May herself. Henrietta is a bumbling, sweet, absent minded botanist, and as you'd expect, when Graham puts his plan into effect, things get complicated.
This is the hardest I've ever laughed at Matthau in a film. If you're as big a fan of them man as I am, you'll understand the magnitude of that statement. There's something about the way his particular brand of set-upon dead pan humor is played, as an amoral and totally oblivious man-child with all the mannerisms of a self important sophisticate, that makes this essentially the equivalent of Matthau comedy porn.
There's a scene early in the film where Graham's lawyer is trying to explain to him that he's broke which is pitch perfect.
Click here to listen to this scene
And the movie is full of these, they just keep coming. And watching it through a second time for this review, I was laughing even harder. May herself does an endearing turn as the loopy Henrietta that manages to be both totally insane and very sweet, which is no easy trick. She plays well as a foil to Graham's heartless gusto.
Click here to get a taste of May's Henrietta
James Coco has a fantastic scene as Graham's nemesis uncle who torments him over a loan, and George Rose is great as the butler and confidant. But at the end of the day this is Matthau's movie.
Click here to treat your ears to Matthau's genius
The filmmaking doesn't quite have the confidence of May's later efforts, though it doesn't get in the way of the humor. Also it's hard to know which of the awkward elements to chalk up to May and which to the man Patton Oswalt immortalized as "cokey mcsnortfuck," the one and only Robert Evans. Originally May delivered a 180 minute cut of the film that was much darker, involving a subplot that actually had Matthau's character bumping off two other characters, and putting a darker spin on his fate at the end. It was a Paramount film, and Evans took it away from May and had it chopped down to 103 minutes with the bleaker elements extracted. Honestly it's hard to imagine the 180 minute version playing better, three hours is a long time to be laughing. But still, it would be interesting to see what was lost.
Unfortunately not only is the 180 minute version lost, but even the shorter cut is not available on DVD. The copy I had was ripped from VHS by a friend (thanks, Ted.) This deserves remedying, and if anyone wants to meet up in front of the Paramount gates later this month, I'll bring the pitchforks. In the meanwhile, VHS and bootleg DVD copies are floating around, and you can find a few scenes on youtube. If you love Matthau, or are a fan of May's comedy or her later films ("The Heartbreak Kid" is a masterpiece, "Ishtar" is absolutely worth another viewing) it's worth going to any lengths you have to to track this one down. Having watched it twice in the past few weeks, it's already well on its way to becoming one of my favorite comedies.
Thanks for reading, and big thanks again to Quint, both for letting me write this up and for a year of AMAD. I don't know about all of you, but my Netflix queue has been a richer place for it.