Elaine May Recognized the Bleakness of the Romantic Comedy

One of my favorite genres of film is the romantic comedy. I’ve written a fair bit about the genre, modern failures and classic charms, on this blog before. It’s a genre that is, in many ways, on the decline in American mainstream filmmaking. There is something deeply toxic about a great many romantic comedies, in which two horrible people start off hating one another, lie to each other constantly, and only end up together at the last possible minute because, well, it’s the last possible minute. I’m not surprise the genre has floundered, given how toxic films like This Means War and Bride Wars really are, and part of the problem is that society’s fairly toxic attitudes on consent, misogyny, and interpersonal boundaries are often ported in, unexamined, to the heightened world of the romantic comedy. But every so often, a filmmaker is very aware of those tropes and interactions, and manages to make a romantic comedy that doesn’t avoid those pitfalls, but leaps headfirst into them, fully realizing how toxic many of them are and giddy with the chance to critique them. A New Leaf, a 1971 film directed by Elaine May, is just such a film.

Henry Graham is an aging bachelor who aspires to do nothing with his life but live richly. Unfortunately for Henry, his thoughtless spending has caused him to run out of cash, and he quickly realizes that without money, he doesn’t have much to live for. He borrows $50,000 from a wealthy uncle with a promise: He either marries rich in the next 6 weeks and pays his uncle back with interest, or everything – his car, his wardrobe, all his possessions – goes to his uncle. He fritters away the time, but just a few short days before the deadline, he stumbles upon the perfect mark: Henrietta Lowell, a vastly wealthy socialite so clumsy and shy no one has bothered to try and woo her. Henry quickly insinuates himself into her life, but can he go through with his plan? Will her greedy lawyer get in his way? What about his uncle, who would much rather have all his property than a mere 10% interest? And will Henrietta fall for it all?

In many ways, this premise is very familiar to romantic comedy fans. Is this that much different than dating someone on a bet, pretending you don’t own a competing shop, or any of the other, myriad lies that romantic comedies often build off of? Well, yes. Because I left out one important detail: Henry plans to murder his bride-to-be shortly after the wedding so that he can return to his life of idle, responsibility-free luxury. His secret is considerably darker, though the movie never really treats it as such.

And that’s because, in this genre, deception is the norm, not the exception. His deception of Henrietta may be more extreme than most, but it fits a pattern of behavior. Indeed, May even films it as an almost cartoonish deception. Hilariously, in one scene, Henrietta dangles at the edge of a cliff trying to collect a species of plant she’s noticed, the perfect opportunity for murder, but Henry is distractedly ignoring her… so he can read a book titled Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology. It’s a scene straight out of Loony Toons, in some way, pushing the conceit so far into the ridiculous that it’s hard to register just how creepy the plot is. But isn’t that the case with a lot of romantic comedies?

As a note, A New Leaf seems to find Walter Matthau playing an asexual male lead, something I’ve never seen before in a mainstream romantic comedy. And I really don’t think I’m reading too much into this. Early in the film, when Matthau asks his friends to introduce him to wealthy, eligible women, they are befuddled, as he has never shown an interest in women before. They introduce him to one who seems completely gung-ho about seeing him, which could solve all his financial problems — except, she quickly makes a sexual pass at him, something he cannot abide, and he leaves her on the spot. It is only when he meets Elaine May’s Henrietta, a conservatively dressed klutz too shy to ever proposition him, that he finds someone he’s even willing to pretend to marry — and he only actually seems resigned to live with her as her husband when he realizes that her dream of domestic bliss is the two of them teaching together at the local college before grading papers together in the study, a fairly platonic vision of marriage. Matthau doesn’t seem to be playing gay, the way his uncle (James Coco) is; instead, he is disinterested to the point of repulsion in the idea of sex.

While it is nice to see some asexual representation in the genre, in A New Leaf, it feels like part of the critique. Most romcoms, rated PG or PG-13 to appeal to as many people as possible, are largely sexless, a few potentially risque jokes aside. The leads are attractive, certainly, but sex is what happens after the happy ending of marriage, and then only implicitly. This, of course, is not how many people approach the idea of romance, though some definitely do. Modern romcoms tend to be more frank about sexuality, but they’re still figuring out how to fit sex – classically posited as ‘the reward’ at the end of the story – into the traditional emotion structure of the genre, and I think they’re struggling.

May recognized a great many of the genre’s tropes and issues decades ago, and in A New Leaf, managed to create a film that satirizes the romantic comedy without abandoning the genre’s genuine charms. A darkly funny asexual romantic comedy is hardly what I expected to find, revisiting this 46-year old classic, but it’s an underappreciated gem of a film that finds a place in the genre’s storied history. While May’s original cut is rumored to be an hour longer and considerably darker – a film I would absolutely LOVE to one day see, if it still exists in any form – the movie we got is still a delight worth seeking out.

A New Leaf was written and directed by Elaine May, and stars Elaine May and Walter Matthau.

Originally released in 1971, A New Leaf is now available on DVD and blu-ray from Olive Films, and can be rented on Amazon.

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