Richard Combs

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

[A New Leaf] has that rather plain and graceless look which combines the functional needs of stage and television comedy. Admittedly there is some dabbling with more respected models—the film opens with a visual gag of a type refined by Buster Keaton, and the storyline itself is vaguely reminiscent of Keaton's Seven Chances. But then the tragedy of Henry Graham, middle-aged bachelor and profligate of a now exhausted private income, and his efforts to find a marriageable heiress, to appropriate the fortune and then dispose of its owner, has its own classic status which Elaine May chooses not to update, or at least only for occasional and very specific comic effect….

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A New Leaf keeps the current phobias of American comedy firmly out of sight, with a rigour of approach that is more than just the artificially airtight conventions of its story. The society inhabited by Henry Graham, all hyper-refined and aristocratic tedium, has a perverse dislocation from any American reality. It is blandly characterised by Henry's vaguely English but perfectly generalised activities at his club, a languid canter along a bridle-path, or the exquisite boredom of hearing about the current blight in a friend's garden….

[The cultural joke of Henry's drive through a New York ghetto, bemoaning his financial situation,] a wrenching and rearranging of social contexts—The Great Gatsby as written by P. G. Wodehouse—conditions its response to the characters. Peculiarly isolated and plainly ridiculous in their situation and their private obsessions, they are still permitted to be discreetly real in their absurdity….

The wistful, fierce integrity of [the personalities of Henry and his wife], viewed with a detached amusement, allows the film to bypass the usual agenda of subjects (sex, the System, etc.) of current comedy concerned with vanishing human identity, and lends a particular vivacity to the comic set-pieces….

[Henry] progresses from pillar of futility to bustling man of action…. While [his wife] Henrietta remains in a state of ignorance so blissful that it seems less than human, Henry returns to indolence with just a twinge of self-awareness.

The movement in fact is close to that of [Mike Nichols'] The Graduate, with the latter's furious acting out of roles, its bemused acceptance of the futility of both speech and action, and a final weary closing of the circle on a happy ending which is not quite that. Nichols' art suggests a ringmaster's display of 'turns', a parading of masks, while Miss May organises her entertainment with very conscious touches of theatrical artifice (the romantic props of country lane, full moon, golden sunset are whisked on and off very quickly), and has her characters act out their obsessions with touching intensity and showmanship.

Richard Combs, "Film Reviews: 'A New Leaf," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1971 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter, 1971–72, p. 52.

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