Thursday, February 28, 2013

A New Leaf

A New Leaf, Elaine May’s debut feature as writer-director, drowns the modern romantic comedy in a swamp of bad feeling and savage disdain. May plays Henrietta, a wealthy, clutzy botanist sporting oversized glasses and undersized personality. Her suitor is freshly pauperized playboy Henry, played with a droll sneer by Walter Matthau. Repulsed by women—and most of the human race, actually—the dedicated bachelor aims to marry his way back into money. Add a dash of arsenic, and Henry can live happily ever after as a wealthy widower. Reportedly recut from May’s much darker three-hour original, the film makes for a bracingly black vision of love. So many romantic comedies are built around a desperate woman enduring countless humiliations just to earn the affections of an indifferent man, but few take the premise this far. Subjecting her character to scorn and ridicule in pursuit of a murderer—played not by a dashing leading man, but the eternally rumpled Matthau—May turns movie romance into an extended act of self-flagellation. The film laces the usual bromides of the genre with enough poison to flatten a small elephant.

Artless and stylized all at once, the film suggests a live-action cartoon. The director indulges in grotesque closeups (more for shock than laughs), and buries gags inside carefully cluttered scenes. But she also shoots much of the film on real locations around New York, wedding a rough-hewn realism to a farcical plot. Such contradictions sit comfortably alongside the jarringly dissonant characters, who are pushed to extremes of cruelty and idiocy, yet viewed with bemused affection. This being called A New Leaf, it should come as no surprise that the film turns away from the abyss in the end. Both characters recognize that they complete each other, and the helplessness that Henry scorns in Henrietta is revealed to be a mirror of his own. But even during his big change of heart, Henry still tosses his wife about like a ragdoll, and he submits to domestic bliss the way some people succumb to cancer. Barbed to the very end, the film is both an autocritique of romantic comedy and exemplar of the genre. Can you become the thing you hate? Sure, and you can marry it too.

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