Our current Movie of the Month, 1972’s A New Leaf, was the directorial debut of stage comedy legend Elaine May. May reluctantly starred in the film herself opposite Walter Matthau, who plays a destitute, asexual playboy aristocrat who plans to marry her neurotic heiress character, kill her, and liquidate her fortune. Only, his plans are thwarted when it gradually dawns on him that there is one thing in the world he enjoys more than money: his wife’s company. A New Leaf is a darkly funny, bitterly anti-romantic romcom until, against all odds, it ends on the familiarly sweet notes of a traditional romcom. Elaine May’s performance is a large part of its success, as the only reasonable response to watching her nervously unravel under her gigantic glasses is to immediately blurt out “Marry me,” regardless of whether you also want to kill her for her inheritance. It’s a shame, then, that her frustrations behind the camera tripped up the film’s potential success.
Every movie Elaine May directed was delivered over-schedule & over-budget. Even her relatively laidback, low-budget debut stretched 40 days past its shooting schedule, with an entire hour of extraneous bits & bobs the studio edited out of the final product despite May’s protests that it needed to be a three-hour romcom to work. If she had delivered A New Leaf on-time, on-budget, and properly trimmed, it would’ve been considered a huge hit instead of just breaking even, and she might’ve had an easier time fighting for her cuts of similarly troubled productions down the line. Instead, she toiled away in the background, writing screenplays for some of the most beloved Hollywood comedies of all time – poor thing. She did manage to squeeze four feature films out of Hollywood producers before they took away her director’s chair, though, and luckily for audiences they’re all great movies, whether or not they lost money. If you enjoyed A New Leaf, I recommend that you watch all three films May directed afterwards, detailed below. And if you’re a Hollywood producer, I recommend that you spend even more money on whatever dream project the 90-year-old auteur wants to see made before she leaves this world. Chances are high you’ve already wasted much more money on much worse films.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
I guess it’s inaccurate to claim that every Elaine May movie was a commercial flop. Her follow-up to A New Leaf was her one hit comedy, enough of a financial success that it inspired a major studio remake starring Ben Stiller in the aughts. Curiously, it’s also the only film in her catalog that’s not currently available to watch at home through official means. The Heartbreak Kid has been left to rot on YouTube and Archive.org as a long-forgotten 20th Century Fox acquisition that the art-indifferent overlords at Disney have no concern for. Which is a shame, since it might very well be May’s career best as a director. At the very least, its anti-romcom humor is even darker & more vicious than A New Leaf’s, which is impressive since that debut was about marital murder.
Charles Grodin stars as a fresh-out-of-college shit-talker who immediately realizes on a honeymoon road trip that he despises his bride. While vacationing in Miami, he ditches her for a younger, blonder co-ed who he has no business fooling with, inevitably finding himself still deeply unhappy after another successful romantic conquest. The Heartbreak Kid is essentially a horror film about a nightmare world where everyone has to marry the first person who makes them horny before they get to have sex, regardless of compatibility or moral deficiency. May’s psychedelic zoom-ins on the Miami resort sunshine, Groden’s complaints that his wife is “not really his type,” and the escalating tension of the plot’s sitcom hijinks are outright maddening, whereas the similar poisonous romance humor of A New Leaf plays oddly, subtly sweet. Together, they make a great pair, and they’re the best argument for May’s genius as a comedic auteur.
Mikey & Nicky (1976)
May’s least typical work is her all-in-one-night gangster drama Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk & John Cassavetes as a pair of uneasy, paranoid friends at the bottom rung of the crime-world ladder. Falk appears to be the kinder, more calming presence of the two, but over the course of the film both characters expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone between either of their bodies. They’re not all that different from the self-absorbed, oblivious brutes of May’s comedies, except that working in a different genre means she no longer has to ingratiate them to the audience for the story to work. Moving away from a character-based comedy structure also expands her scope to capture a portrait of a grimy, pre-Giuliana era NYC instead of just a couple losers who occupy it. The film’s late-night setting, 70s funk soundtrack, guerilla-style camerawork, and authentic casting of dive-bar creeps as background extras all feel like they’d be much more at home in a Scorsese picture like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets than a typical film from Elaine May. But she’s damn good at it.
Mikey & Nicky presents the best argument that May deserves as much time to tinker around in the editing room as she desires. The dialogue has a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage. So, it’s mind-blowing to read about how its narrative flow was mostly constructed after-the-fact in the editing room, like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Her way of putting a story together might not have been financially sound at the time (considering that her over-schedule shoots were burning through celluloid while Apatow’s only clutter up digital servers), but you can’t argue with the results. She makes great movies.
The only time I can feel the overcooked, under-planned sweatiness of Elaine May’s directorial style is in her final picture, the one that effectively became a punchline synonym for box office disaster. Ishtar is not nearly as bad as its contemporary reviews suggested. In its earliest stretch, it’s an ahead-of-its-time, Tim & Eric style anti-comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to instead make some quick money as a nightclub act in Morocco. The film also isn’t as great as its modern reclaimers suggest. Once it arrives in Morocco, May loses the personable intimacy that makes her earlier comedies so great, as Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually drafted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar. The movie loses a little of its post-Andy Kauffman, proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump, which involves a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and our bumbling leads getting lost in the desert.
Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, Ishtar does not deserve its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in the spring of 1985. The film is often funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part). Still, it ended up being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, as it finally sealed May’s reputation as box office poison after four consecutive debacles. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released. Even if her productions were overly extravagant for what she was supposed to be delivering, I’d say that was a mistake. After all, she was only hurting the money men. She consistently put out great art, even when it was bad for business.