Elaine May garnered fame in the early 1960s as the female half of the comedy duo alongside Mike Nichols, who later directed such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. This was May’s film debut, and she did everything; directing, writing, and of course acting as Henrietta Lowell. Interestingly enough, the film we see is not necessarily the film she wanted, but it is what it is I suppose.
Obviously, Elaine May did a lot for this film, but the story starts with Walter Matthau who gives another memorable turn playing a variation on his prototypical grumpy grouch of a character. This time he’s stuffy Henry Graham who lives beyond his means riding horses, driving a Ferrari, and keeping servants. But he is very bad at what he does…which is nothing. His Ferrari suffers from carbon on the valves, his latest check has bounced, and Mr. Graham is not a happy camper much to the chagrin of his long-suffering lawyer Beckett (William Redfield). His only hope is to get his uncle to bail him out one last time, but it does not come without a price. $50,000 with interest unless Henry can find a wife lickety-split. The prospects seem grim and both men know it. On the urging of his faithful manservant Harold it becomes a mad race against the clock to find a lady with money to spare.
At a social gathering, he finds the perfect object for his mock affection. Clumsy, bespectacled, messy, and filthy rich botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). The courtship is quick and as clumsy as ever because Henrietta is present. Henry only has one objective: get the girl and get the money with her. A little glass in the knee and wine on the rug means little. The wedding happens and what ensues is strangely comedic. Henry has outwitted his uncle and Henrietta’s shady lawyer with his own intentions ahead of him. Soon he is running his wife’s home, firing her servants, putting her life in order and generally being condescending. He even dabbles in toxicology over their honeymoon, because a nice simple murder would be nice.
But in a sentimental moment, Henrietta names her new species after her hubby who actually is touched by the honor. On a camping and canoe trip in the Adirondacks, Graham is as miffed as ever as he prepares to get rid of his wifey. Their canoe capsizes and it’s the opportune moment since she cannot swim. In a moment of weakness, he goes to her rescue and resigns himself to be a professor as she has always dreamed. He’s a married man now. He’ll need to leave the pesticides alone at least for awhile.
This is far from your typical comedy and yet Walter Matthau is quite enjoyable as he navigates the upper echelon with an air of snootiness and bother. In some strange sense, I suppose it’s even a love story because in a weird way Henry Graham needs Henrietta. She for one fell in love with him. But as Harold notes, she has caused Henry to be far more competent than he has ever been in his life. By the end, we’re not really sure what to think. In some indirect way, they are a perfect match because they seem oh so wrong.