Henry Graham (Matthau) is a spoiled, pompous man who has spent all of his inherited wealth and has no way of earning a living for himself by working. Days away from having to forfeit his property, he decides to marry eccentric but rich botany professor Henrietta Lowell (May), and then plots to murder her.
The film had a Troubled Production, going 40 days over its shooting schedule and more than $2 million over its budget. After months of post-production and editing, Paramount demanded that May produce a rough cut; when she refused, the film—which at that point was supposedly three hours long—was taken out of her hands. Studio head Robert Evans had the running time reduced to 102 minutes and removed a few of the film's darker elements, including a subplot in which Henry poisons two men who have been blackmailing Henrietta.
Though well received by critics, it was only a modest commercial success.note
For more on Elaine May's battles with film studios, read about Ishtar.
"There's some carbon on the Tropes":
- Big Eater: Uncle Harry
- Black Comedy: Subjects such as attempted murder and suicide are played for laughs. In the director's cut, successful murder is also played for laughs.
- Cannot Spit It Out:
- Beckett goes through extreme contortions to avoid using the word "broke" to describe Henry's financial situation.
- Henry has some trouble proposing to Henrietta.
- Catchphrase: "There's carbon on the valves" for Henry, "heavens!" for Henrietta; even used in tandem at one point.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Henrietta when it comes to anything not related to botany. Henry quite unexpectedly turns out to be good at being her Minder.
- Comically Missing the Point: After Henry gets introduced to a couple named Hitler at a party.Henry: Excuse me, are you by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?Dr. Hitler: No, we're from Glen Cove.
- Cute Clumsy Girl: Elaine May takes it up to eleven as the socially inept Henrietta. She forgets to remove price tags from her clothes; has to be vacuumed after she eats; spills multiple cups of tea in one sitting; and accidentally puts her head through the arm hole of a Grecian nightgown.
- Double-Meaning Title: Refers to both the new fern species Henrietta discovers and the changes in her and Henry's lives.
- Fourth-Date Marriage: Per his agreement with Uncle Harry, Henry has six weeks to get married and meets Henrietta with only a few days left, so he's forced to speed up the courtship.
- Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Harold the butler, for Henry.
- Ironic Hell: Henry staying with Henrietta is this in the director's cut of the film.
- The Klutz: Henrietta is a classic example.
- Self-Deprecating Humor: This article suggests that Elaine May was poking fun at her own Klutz and Cloudcuckoolander tendencies with Henrietta.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Henrietta on the honeymoon, except for the part of not knowing how to wear a nightgown.
- Shown Their Work: May consulted with a botanist for the screenplay, so the botany references are all accurate. There's also a Shout-Out to W.H. Wagner.
- Theme Naming: Henry, Henrietta, Harold, Harry, Professor Heinrich.
- Upper-Class Twit: Henry, though he's forced to go to extreme measures to avoid becoming an Impoverished Patrician.