A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2010
LEAVES OF GRASS
2010, R, 105 mins.
2010, R, 105 mins.
Bill Kincaid: Edward Norton /
Brady Kincaid: Edward Norton /
Bolger: Tim Blake Nelson /
Daisy Kincaid: Susan Sarandon /
Janet: Kerry Russell /
Pug Rothbaum: Richard Dreyfuss /
Buddy Fuller: Steve Earle
days after seeing Tim Blake Nelson’s LEAVES OF GRASS I am still
struggling to process what I saw. Maybe
that’s a good thing, but then again, perhaps it’s not.
Nelson is perhaps best know for his quirky and delectably offbeat
character roles in films like O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? And SYRIANA, but
many lay filmgoers forget that he is also a director of a formidable
talent. He made one of the
more interesting adaptations of Shakespeare in 2001’s O and, for my
money, he made one of the most criminally undervalued and one of the best
least seen films about the Holocaust in THE GREY ZONE, also from 2001.
takes on the dual role of writer and director in LEAVES OF GRASS, a film
that reflects his skill behind the camera, but seems to thrash about
aimlessly in terms of its narrative and tone. That, and it seems made up of
divergent pieces from other better films.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a film that is
off-the-wall and peculiar, and one of the compliments that I will pay
LEAVES OF GRASS is that it's likeably abnormal (a vibe that Nelson seems to liberally
borrow from the Coen Brothers). Yet,
LEAVES OF GRASS is almost impenetrably difficult to label: it’s a stoner
comedy…then a pseudo-intellectual flick, then a small
town family melodrama...and then a grisly
gratuitously violent exploration into its seedy characters…and
oftentimes it morphs in and out of these descriptors.
Too many disparaging elements vie for attention and cohesion in
LEAVES OF GRASS, which ultimately hurts it from feeling like a satisfying
is a considerable amount of fun, though, to see the great and always
dependable Edward Norton (also serving as producer) playing twin brother
characters that, through movie magic and some ingenuity, are able to
smoothly interact with one another on screen.
In most cases, films that have one actor playing twins can seem
like a hooky device, but in other more notable examples (like ADAPTATION), the results can be sublime.
One of the most notable successes of LEAVES OF GRASS is to see the
actor completely inhabit both of his roles and make each one distinctively
his very own, and it's crucial that his performance (or, performances) work
to help override the gimmicky aspects of playing twins.
To see the actor calibrate each distinct personality is a real
twin siblings he plays here could not be any different.
We are first introduced to a highly esteemed Ivy League professor
of Classics named Bill Kincaid, and his career is starting to gain serious
momentum after he receives word of a highly lucrative job offer from
Harvard. This man has it all:
he is loved by his students and university colleague alike, has a notable
publishing career, and now seems poised to take a position at his dream
college. Things go very
quickly south for poor Bill when he receives a phone call from his family
that his twin bro Brady has been killed in a drug deal gone bad.
He reluctantly decides to return to Little Dixie, Oklahoma to attend the funeral and pay his respects…that is until he realizes –
when he arrives - that his red-necked, pot-dealing brother is very much
first gets picked up by Brady’s best buddy, Bolger (played in a very
droll and snarky performance by Nelson), but when Bill discovers that his brother is alive, he becomes
absolutely flabbergasted. Brady
pleads with his brother hear out his plan that
requires Bill to stay in town. It
appears that Brady did, in fact, lie about his death to Bill so that he
could lure him back home to assist him on two fronts:
Firstly, he desperately wishes Bill to visit their former hippie
mother (Susan Surandon, good, but very underused here), who has recently committed
herself to a nursing home. Secondly,
Brady wants Bill to impersonate him to establish an alibi
while Brady goes to Tulsa for a meeting with the head Jewish kingpin
marijuana dealer named Tug Rothbaum (a delightfully unhinged Richard
Dreyfus, compelling enough in regrettably short-lived cameo).
Along the way, Bill hooks up with a colorful group of misfits,
like one truly weird and crazy-assed dentist looking to kick-start his practice
(Josh Pais) and, more meaningfully, a cute, bubbly, but smart country gal (played by the
and smart Keri Russell). Nonetheless,
the longer Bill stays back home, the more his elitist and scholarly life
he left behind becomes more difficult to return to because his
southern roots are coming back to haunt him.
face value, Bill and Brady are like fire and ice, but this is where Norton excels at giving us two juicy
performances for the price of one. His
Brady is a total hillbilly with an obligatory twangy inflection,
and he represents a loose and free spirit when compared to the white
collared stiff that is his brother. Bill
is a well spoken (he has long since lost his accent), incomparably
intelligent, and urbane figure when compared to his brother.
Yet, one intriguing aspect of LEAVES OF GRASS is that Norton’s
performance and Nelson’s script do not make Brady a lame, one-note
caricature. Both brothers are
presented as intellectuals, but their chosen fields of specialty are
completely different. Bill
conquered academia whereas Brady conquered the world of high tech
hydrophonic pot growing that produces its seventh generation of
top-quality weed. The
screenplay – and Norton’s work here - does not condescend Brady: he is
a genius, in many ways, in his vocation in life, just as his
brother is in his.
I just wished that Nelson’s script was not so…well…condescending to
the other local personalities that occupy his film, which are, more or
less, broadly presented as comic stereotypes.
The comedy in the film is arguably as broad as some of its
personas, which tries to locate that difficult grey area of far-out and
absurdist guffaws with dark undertones that make the Coen Brothers' comedies so riotous, but it
never really finds its way. LEAVES OF GRASS is more cartoonishly silly and
outlandish than, say, an incisive black comedy.
The opening half of the film also seems to have difficulty
developing a solid plot trajectory: for the first little while I found it
difficult to decipher really where Nelson wanted to go with these
characters and their respective dilemmas, not to mention that certain
relationships (like the one between Bill/Brady and their mother and
Bill’s romantic fling with Russell’s character) seems half-baked at
best. When the film builds to
a frantic (and surprisingly blood and gore spattered) third act you are
kind of left feeling blind-sided. The
film’s macabre tonal shifts at this point seem diametrically opposed to
the whimsical spirit that resided beforehand; they don't have a feeling
of being cohesively meshed together.
is also a bit of smug posturing here in regards to the film’s title:
LEAVES OF GRASS is taken from the 1855 poetry collection by Walt
Whitman, which is both referenced directly on screen at one point while
serving as an obvious weed allusion as well.
I think that the title is trying to hint that, yes, the film is a
wacky-tobacky comedy of manners, but deep down it has something deep and
prophetically profound to say. Nelson’s
script does have a few instances where its characters – both educated
and not – have small and discrete moments to ponder age-old
philosophical questions, but they seem so haphazardly inserted into the
film at random times that they feel like regurgitated extras from another
film altogether. That’s essentially the feeling I got from watching LEAVES
OF GRASS: It’s a mixed bagged effort with a lot of incompatible ideas,
themes, and tones. Nelson is
a proven directorial talent (and a terrific character actor) and
Norton’s dual performance in the film is a rollicking highlight, but
everything around their presences in LEAVES OF GRASS seems lamentably