The Field Guide to Netflix Canada: ‘A New Leaf’

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anewleafA New Leaf
Written by Elaine May
Directed by Elaine May
USA, 1971

Fellow Canadian cinephiles know that our local version of Netflix has a terrible wheat-to-chaff ratio. The thin library, coupled with the still-not-great UI, makes it so that a disproportionately large amount of legwork has to be put into just browsing for movies. Then there’s what available. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a movie olden than you on the front page. This is because the collection sharply skews recent: at time of writing, approximately 0.01% of the films in the library were released before 1960. For comparison, about 58% of the films currently available were released this decade. Despite all this, though, I come here today not to bury Netflix Canada, nor to tear it a new one, but to provide fellow Canucks with a road map to navigating Netflix’s choppy waters. And with that, I welcome you to the Field Guide to Netflix Canada.

The first entry in the series in Elaine May’s 1971 film A New Leaf. This was May’s first effort as writer/director, and it would set the trend that would dog her for the next decade in that it is, in a way, a compromised film. May’s original vision for the film was significantly darker and longer, and what exists is a shortened, truncated version of what she had in mind. Her next self-penned directorial effort, Mikey and Nicky (1976), involved her shooting a Judd Apatow-level amount of footage, and it took so long to edit that the studio sued to get final cut privilege. The most notorious of these stories is that of Ishtar (1987), whose famously shambolic road to release included a distended budget, clashing creative egos, and three separate final edits of the film being made concurrently by three different teams of editors (one for May, and one each for stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman). But in spite of all this, all of these movies have enduring qualities. Ishtar‘s brazen silliness has drawn a cult following, if not a full-on critical re-evaluation. Mikey and Nicky has two excellent central lead performances by John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. And A New Leaf, even in it’s truncated form, manages to pull off an incredible balancing act by melding the darkest black comedy with genuine warmth.

The great Walter Matthau stars as Henry Graham, New York socialite and despicable rat bastard. He might be the single most bratty, entitled character in the history of film. He treats everyone in his vicinity with an almost cartoonish level of contempt, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine May’s original version of him. There’s a long, drawn-out scene near the top of the film where a banker has to explain to Graham the very concept of being broke. It’s a great way to set up just how bull-headed and isolated Graham actually is, but it also sets up the main conflict of the film: terrible person Henry Graham has no money, and desperately needs some to maintain his pampered lifestyle. The solution? Become a gold-digger and marry into money. So he cuts a deal with his former legal guardian: he’ll marry someone within six weeks or forfeit everything he owns

a-new-leaf-2to him. He eventually sets his sights on orphaned heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), an awkward, frumpy botany professor whose dream in life is to discover a new species of plant, thus enabling the titular double-pun. Henrietta is Henry’s polar opposite, sweet and naive where he is callous and cynical. Once she is introduced, the film shifts from being a nasty riff on My Fair Lady and becomes an exercise in how much Henry Graham can bite his tongue for the sake of luxury.

The best thing about this movie his how thoroughly it dismantles the idea that a protagonist has to be relatable for a story to work. To his infinite credit, Matthau relishes in the opportunity to be a total scumbag. But for all it’s pointed one-liners and gallows humour, there’s an unsettling underlying current beneath A New Leaf, likely a remnant from its original longer cut. Though it ends up positing that there is empathy is even the most despicable of people, the journey there is filled with good actions made for terrible reasons. In a way, A New Leaf plays like an agonizing masochistic journey to self-realization played for laughs. In a way, it’s a pointed deconstruction of how human relationships form for by using a sociopath as a catalyst. Seeing Graham trying to parse feelings is on par with watching the Grinch look down upon Whoville post-heart growth, but nowhere near as sweet. This is an acid comedy right down to the bitter end, and it’s a testament to Elaine May’s talent that this caustic gem flies high even in its shortened form.

– Derek Godin