Friday, May 31, 2013

I Recommend ...

I don't often do this. Really.

But Turner Classic Movies will be showing a really good — and underappreciated — Walter Matthau movie tonight at 7 (Central).

It's called "A New Leaf," from 1971, and it was actually written and directed by Elaine May, who co–starred with Matthau.

May apparently tried (unsuccessfully) to have her name removed from the credits when the studio made considerable changes. In spite of those changes, the movie remained a dark and extraordinarily funny story about marriage, money and murder.

I don't want to give too much away because the fun of watching "A New Leaf" is experiencing it for yourself, but I feel I must give you at least a taste.

Matthau, you see, played a thoroughly self–absorbed playboy who had wasted his inheritance and had no marketable skills.

His first thought was to commit suicide — "All I am, or was, is rich," he lamented, "and it's all I wanted to be" — but he couldn't bring himself to do that so he went for his second option — he had to borrow money from his uncle to keep up appearances while he tried to find a wealthy woman to marry. If he found such a girl and married her in a certain length of time, he would pay back his uncle and resume his extravagant lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, he failed to find someone to marry, his uncle would seize all his assets, and he would be poor. But that was no worse than the predicament in which he found himself. That did not really sink in, though, until his gentleman's gentleman observed that "in a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much."

So Matthau reluctantly embarked on his journey to find a mate — and had no success at first.

(While I know I'm going at this out of sequence, I must say that I think one of the funniest moments in a movie filled with funny moments comes early when Matthau's financial adviser, played by character actor William Redfield, tries to tell him that he is broke.

(He explains to Matthau that he has even dipped into his own pocket at times to cover bills for which Matthau had insufficient funds. He did this, he says, so he could have the satisfaction of knowing that he did not in any way contribute to Matthau's inevitable poverty.

(Matthau, of course, seems oblivious to what his adviser is telling him, insisting that he explain why shares of a stock that he owned had been sold without authorization. Those shares had been sold to raise funds to cover debts.)

But then he met Henrietta Lowell (May), an isolated and eccentric young heiress, and he set about wooing her. To the amazement of his uncle, he won their wager by marrying May — but was already planning her demise for their honeymoon. However, his plans went unexpectedly off the track, thanks to a number of obstacles, not the least of which was the zany cast of supporting characters played by the likes of James Coco and Jack Weston.

And, if you only know Doris Roberts as the 60–ish matriarch of the Barone family for whom housework was a labor of love in Everybody Loves Raymond, you owe it to yourself to see her when she was about 40 and playing a paid housekeeper whose primary occupation was finding creative ways (which had nothing to do with love — except for the love of money) to supplement her already–extravagant pay.

Roberts and the rest of May's household staff were not eager to share their cash cow with Matthau — and Matthau had no intention of sharing it with anyone.

Inevitably, there was a clash, and I'm sure you can guess which one won — but it's still fun to watch it happen.

What is even more fun to watch is the effect of May's endearing personality on Matthau in spite of his worst intentions.

Roger Ebert, the movie critic who died recently, wrote that "A New Leaf" was "hilarious and cockeyed and warm."

That about sums it up. Don't miss it.