Like a lot of people, when I think of Walter Matthau I think of the Matthau / Jack Lemmon pairing. It’s not just that they made a lot of movies together (although they did; there were 10 in total) it’s that the movies they made together were amongst the best in their careers. And this film – which paired Matthau not with Lemmon, but with comedian Elaine May – sheds some light on why that partnership worked so well by showing an example of a pairing that doesn’t work well at all.
To narrow down the focus, let’s just compare the Lemmon/Matthau movie that’s the most similar to this: the Odd Couple. In the Odd Couple, Lemmon is the exact opposite of Matthau: he’s a tidy, uptight guy who is desperately unhappy outside of his marriage, while Matthau is an unkempt slob who is happy as a bachelor. It’s a similar pairing in a New Leaf: Elaine May plays a shy, uncultured rich woman who is only happy when she’s studying botany, while Matthau is an outgoing playboy who has run out of money and needs to woo a rich woman if he’s going to keep up the payment on his sports cars.
The difference between those two movies is that the couple in the Odd Couple are the irresistible force and the unmoveable object; Lemmon’s determined cheeriness sometimes cheers up Matthau, but it’s just as likely that Matthau’s cynical grumpiness will bum out Lemmon. Here, however, May represents an unequal force, and the fact that Matthau is clearly always in control of their relationship shifts the power balance too far. You know he’s only after her for her money, you know that he’s thinking about bumping her off just to have her money - but she doesn’t know that, and doesn’t seem like she would put up much of a fight even if she did know.
Matthau’s specialty was playing disheveled grumps who secretly had hearts of gold. Jack Lemmon always came across as such a likeable guy that you could see how he could unearth the goodness in anyone, even such a dyed in the wool sourpuss. In contrast, May’s character in A New Leaf only gets to live because Matthau has a change of heart about bumping her off at the end – which is not necessarily unbelievable, but which certainly wasn’t inevitable. Ultimately, I think there are things to like in this movie, but if you feel like watching a Matthau movie there are a lot better options out there.
Winner: The Cat