By Brian Prisco | Film | October 1, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | October 1, 2010 |
Tim Blake Nelson is one hell of a playwright, but he’s had less than success with his filmmaking career. His only notable feature being the Othello modernization, O, with Julia Stiles and Josh Harnett. Yet, he’s done well with Leaves of Grass, which feels almost like a throwback to the old drawing-room comedies of Sheridan or Coward. Except people smoke a lot of weed and say “fuck” a lot. The synopsis is a fair assessment of the project: an Ivy League professor is tricked back to his small Oklahoma hometown by his pot-growing twin brother, who’s concocted a scheme to take down a local drug kingpin. It goes even broader and zanier than that, incorporating an English teaching poet who’s a champion noodler, a rogue orthodontist, and the Jewish mafia of Tulsa. And therein lies my major problem with the film. It starts off as kind of a comedy of errors, and then swiftly and mercilessly takes a turn for the dark and tragic, like a billowing storm cloud over an outdoor wedding suddenly funneling. It’s so jarring and depressing, it’s hard to really enjoy the film, which has some fucking brilliant and fun performances, particularly Edward Norton as both brothers. I’m not saying every cloud needs to have a silver lining to make for a good movie, but nobody wants to get struck in the face by lightning and hail.
Leaves of Grass is a thoughtful weed film, more Saving Grace than Pineapple Express. Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is a staid professor of philosophy at Brown with no trace of his shitkicker accent staining his treatises on Socrates. He’s the kind of professor that makes grad students groin-gush, as evidenced by Miss Greenstein (Lucy Devito, daughter of Danny), who whips off her top and accosts him, spouting in Latin. Bill doesn’t play that kind of game. Harvard’s knocking at his door with a luscious offer, and he’s ready for the big leagues.
That’s when he gets the call from Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), his brother’s scarred up little henchmonkey. Apparently, his brother’s been killed by a crossbow, and he must return to Little Dixie. In truth, his brother Brady Kincaid (also Edward Norton) has been hatching a scheme. Brady’s a rootin-tootin horti-fuckin-culturist. He’s got a thick as hell twang, long hair, a sketcher beard, and wears pajama pants when he can. He’s the da Vinci of the sticky icky. His operation is amazing, his grow house would make Cheech and Chong give offerings, and his product is powerfully potent.
But, a problem has arisen. The local drug kingpin, Pug (Richard Dreyfus), wants him to either pay up the money he fronted Brady for his grow operation, or he wants him to start cooking meth. Brady’s ready to step down because he’s got a baby on the way with his girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey), and he’s decided to close up shop. But Pug’s not having it, so Brady decides to take matters in his own hands by luring his twin back to Little Dixie for a little bait and switch.
Leaves of Grass has strains of Doc Hollywood cross-pollinated with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Bill goes home and starts falling for the local English teacher, Janet (Keri Russell), who can quote Walt Whitman while she’s noodling — that’s fishing barehanded for 40-pound catfish by basically sticking your hand down their throats. You’ve come a long way, Felicity. She’s tailor-made for Bill, who starts slowly seeping back into his roots, even to the point he starts making peace with his estranged mother, Daisy (Susan Sarandon).
The supporting cast is nothing short of remarkable. Melanie Lynskey doesn’t have much to do as Colleen, but goddamn is she adorable when she’s not doing it. Keri Russell might be the weakest peg, but more of that is the character as written than her acting. Janet’s kind of a no-nonsense, very pragmatic gal. Susan Sarandon just makes perfect sense as a hippie-mom who smoked pot with her two sons when she was abandoned by their father. Richard Dreyfus as Pug is just a bulldogging wonderful little cameo, and he’s becoming my favorite short scene actor, between this and Piranha 3D. Normally, when a writer-director casts themselves as one of the main characters in their project, it seems vain, but I don’t think anyone else would have been as good at the scruffy Bolger as Tim Blake Nelson. Maybe, Dwight Yoakam? Musician and activist Steve Earle pops up as a brutal redneck drug dealer, and he’s scary as hell. Josh Pais was fucking outstanding as orthodontist Ken Feinman, who finds himself in the middle of this nonsense, and turns in the kind of spastic Ben Stilleresque performance you want to see from Ben Stiller.
But we gotta talk about Edward Norton. I only want Edward Norton to play twins or two halves of a personality from now on. A lot of people have played twins on screen, but Brady and Bill Kincaid feel like two completely different actors are performing them. In going for a kind of button-down stammering academic, he’s obviously your go-to guy. They might very well just have given him tenure at Brown for the film shoot and duration of the semester. But I would not have believed he was capable of pulling off Brady Kincaid. He was like Brad Pitt at his most 12 Monkey Durdens. He’s got this charismatic charm with the long hair and the bright eyes and the ne’er-do-well rebel streak. Even when the twins trim up to look similar later in the film, you can always tell which character is which, from posture to that twinkle in the eye. It’s uncanny. It’s my regret that the film takes such a brutal turn south, because it’s worth watching if only to see Edward Norton’s killer performance.
But it does go places I couldn’t understand. It just seemed like such an unnecessary move on the part of Tim Blake Nelson. He does come from a theatre tradition, and modern theatre hates a completely happy ending. When you actually sit down and weigh the possibilities of what happens at the end, you’re kind of thunderstruck. Which is a damn shame because he made kind of a nice, thinking man’s weed film. And this is such another wonderfully respectful film towards the people of the Midwest. (Or you know what, whatever the fuck y’all sonsabitches want to call it. This is a preemptive I-don’t-fucking-care-whether-Oklahoma-is-the-south-or-the-Midwest-or-the-Ozarks-or-East-Hatchafuckingcockoutchass. Every time I mention a region, you get all pissed off. Shut up. Fuck you. Go work for Garmin. They’re one state over.) It’s because he’s so resentful of his roots that Bill Kincaid sets off all the country and city mousing, but in all honesty, the people of Tulsa and Little Dixie in the movie are one hundred times smarter. There’s nobody hooting Git-R-Done or watching NASCAR. They’re just wicked fucking smart. And I like that. Not everyone with a brain rolls to the coasts and stops believing in Jesus. You’d be smart to pay attention to that, Hollywood.
Leaves of Grass is still worth a gander, because you’ll see some wonderful performances. It’s just like starting out watching Half-Baked and ending with Requiem for a Dream. It’s skunked, and makes you all sick and disoriented. It’s also a very ruminative film, with a lot of people sitting around discussing the meanings of life. It’s a weed movie about roots, and it’s pretty damn thoughtful at that. And Edward Norton is fucking outstanding. Hell, everybody is. Should you see it? It couldn’t hurt. But you probably don’t need to.