A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2010

LEAVES OF GRASS jj
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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

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson.

Even 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.  

Nelson 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 and 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 whole.   

There 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 treat. 

The 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 alive. 

Bill 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 cute, bubbly, 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. 

At 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. 

Yet, 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. 

There 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 cobbled together. 

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