LEAVES OF GRASS
Written and Directed by Tim Blake Nelson
A phrase you might hear a lot of when you listen to people talking about Edward Norton's latest film, Leaves of Grass, is "tone issues". This is a film that does not seem to care if events or character actions come out of nowhere. It doesn't put much stock into what the audience may expect to happen in a certain scene, because it goes right ahead and does whatever the hell it wants to do anyway. But there is a method to the madness here, and director Tim Blake Nelson constructs a rather brilliant, offbeat tale of family, philosophy, and good ol' weed.
Billy Kincaid (Edward Norton) is a classical philosophy professor at Brown University. He's got students who love him (some a little too much), a regular space in a magazine where he's able to write extensive columns, and numerous offers from other schools to teach there. He is a prestigious thinker, but he comes from very humble beginnings in Little Dixie, Oklahoma. His father died when he was very young and his mother (Susan Surandon) was such a druggie that she denied Billy any shot at a normal childhood. So, he abandoned Little Dixie at first chance and started a life of his own.
That is, until he gets a phone call telling him that his twin brother Brady (also Edward Norton) has been murdered. Billy flies back to Oklahoma for the first time in over a decade and meets Brady's friend Bolger (Nelson himself). They both go inside a convenient store, Billy is immediately mistaken for his brother, and knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he finds Brady nursing him to health. Obviously flustered, Brady explains that he's getting married and having a baby with his girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey), and proclaiming his own death was the only way to get Billy to come down to see the event.
In frustration, Billy explains that he's leaving immediately, but Brady convinces him to stay for the weekend. He introduces Billy to his friend Janet (Keri Russell) who seems to be the only person in Little Dixie who shares Billy's intellectual level. After a day, Brady reveals his real scheme. As a major pot dealer and grower, Brady has to travel to Tulsa for a while, and he needs Billy to pretend to be him while he's gone--for alibi reasons. What follows is a series of humorous, often violent encounters with a pious drug kingpin (Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic Jewish orthodontist (Josh Pais), and more crossbows than I ever thought existed in this country.
It is around these moments in Leaves of Grass that the audience will probably tune out and shout that the movie makes no sense. I'm not exactly sure that I would blame them, since the tone shifts are sudden and violent (literally and figuratively) and leave even the most open-minded viewers scratching their heads. I'll admit that I found my mind swimming upon first viewing, but upon further pondering, I feel that there is something rather brilliant here. The harsh turns that the movie takes seem almost intentional, and I start to think that this was the best way for Nelson to address the themes he was presenting in the film.
As I watched, I began to wonder whether a more seasoned, eccentric filmmaker--like Spike Jonze or the Coen Brothers--would handle this wacky material and make it more fluid. Then I thought again. Addressing the themes of high and low culture, the morality of humanity, and the effect of the drug culture in lower economic areas, Nelson is tapping into a ridiculous universe. So maybe the ridiculous nature in which this film presents itself is actually the perfect tone after all. It's this nice balance between screwball comedy and austere sincerity that makes the film very charming, even when the corpses begin to pile up.
Playing both twin brothers, Norton has probably his best performances since 2002's 25th Hour. He perfectly encapsulates the idiosyncrasies of the two incredibly diverse brothers, and even when he delves into camp with his Oklahoma accent for Brady, it never feels derogatory. Russell, Nelson, and Surandon all lend the film some very effective supporting performances that create a very authentic atmosphere of Hicksville, USA. Certainly not an actor's film, Leaves has the benefit of good performances to buoy the excellent themes.
There is only a very tenuous connection to Walt Whitman's famous book of poetry, but it only really uses that piece of literature to further push the motif high versus low culture. I know Leaves of Grass is going to rub people the wrong way. Maybe I'm just so cynical and contrarion that I find that charming. What's most important, though, is that when you leave the theater you are thinking. You're pondering over everything that Nelson could have possibly wanted to portray in this odd little little film, and that's more interesting then most of the studio dribble that we see in theaters.