October 19, 2010

Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass is a rousing romp through the juxtapositions of a life of crime and a life of academia that never speaks down to its audience and provides plenty of dark humor and lasting impressions. The film’s veteran cast helps flesh out the background, and the interplay between two Edward Norton’s on screen is delightfully entertaining. Darkness, humor, pot smoking, and plenty of larger-than-life questions permeate this mixture of genres and topics, creating a film that you won’t soon forget. Hit the jump for the full review of the film and the DVD.

Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is a rising philosophy teacher at Brown University that has left behind his humble beginnings and surrounds himself in his work. However, when his estranged pot-dealing twin-brother Brady (Edward Norton) lures him back to his hometown in Oklahoma, the stakes are elevated and their lives are forever changed. While Bill comes to see what could have been in Janet (Keri Russell) and struggles to find acceptance of his failed relationship with his mother (Susan Sarandon), Brady and his pal Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson) set off on a mission to smooth over their relationship with the Jewish drug boss Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). As the two brothers converge, their wildly different lifestyles clash and it requires the combined efforts of both to untangle the mess that they find themselves in, proving that the path of discovery can come from the unlikeliest means.

Tim Blake Nelson pulls quadruple duty as writer, producer, director, and actor for Leaves of Grass, and I can’t think of how much pleasure he got out of pulling together the tremendous cast and having them populate this great setting, and then jumping back and forth in front of and behind the camera. There is an infectious energy in the film. Nelson wants you to think, and as the film rolls through its 105 minute runtime, he succeeds over and over. His writing is smart and honest, which helps ground the film while the dual Nortons appear on screen. Nelson himself is an interesting figure of deceiving looks, at once funny and smart despite his appearance, and he helps toe the line of the two intermingling worlds in his direction and writing.

The storyline has a quirky beginning that hides the dramatic twist of the film towards the third act, yet Nelson manages to smoothly navigate the handoff that at times is shockingly violent. The feel of the film will no doubt draw comparisons to the Coen Brothers, especially when the film opens on Bill’s philosophical lecture and the way it quickly becomes a rollercoaster of action and reaction. The fact that they weave in Walt Whitman’s poetry collection that the film derives its name from is also a testament to Nelson’s handle on the issues at work here. However, there are times when the narrative gets stuck in the mud, but the story has a tendency to quickly right itself as any quality drama will.

Sometimes the cast can overshadow a film, as the characters feel too large for the story within the film. Leaves of Grass suffers none of those woes while it manages to bring an incredibly diverse and talented cast together. Janet is multidimensional and stands for a life of academia lived in humble surroundings, which is in direct contrast to Bill’s own choices. One of the real surprises is the turn by Josh Pais, who plays a struggling Jewish orthodontist on the edge of self-destruction. Meanwhile, Brady utilizes his smarts to become a trailblazer in the pot growing world, and the philosophical debates between him and Bill are accentuated by Brady’s rambling Oklahoma drawl and bleary-eyed look.

The juxtaposition between Brady and Bill isn’t just in the way they walk and talk, but also in the color palettes they are surrounded by on screen. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer utilizes cool earth tones, with plenty of blues and greys in Bill’s academic setting at Brown, while Brady’s life has a wider variant of colors, including the red soil colors that Oklahoma is known for. Even in split scenes of Bill interacting with his academic life, there is use of the different color tones. Additionally, the work of editor Michelle Botticelli is tremendous, as Brady and Bill interact on screen and blur the lines of something you know is impossible, yet seems real.

While the DVD is sparse on special features, the sounds and picture are crisp and clear, and the handful of action sequences play out incredibly well. The DVD contains an 11 minute making of featurette, official trailer, and commentary from the two most integral figures in the film: Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton. The film is displayed in 1.85, 16×9 widescreen aspect and 5.1 digital surround sound, with a Spanish subtitle option.

Leaves of Grass is an interesting blend that results in a dark philosophical drug dramedy that succeeds because of the writing and direction provided by Tim Blake Nelson, and excels because of the home-run cast and Edward Norton’s dual roles. There aren’t many films that can balance everything at work here, which is why this movie should be celebrated as an achievement that contains a bowlful of heart and proves it has as much substance as quirky style. You care for these characters and you will be left pondering the grand questions it asks. This film is something that needs to be experienced with an audience, and because it had a very limited theatrical release, picking up the DVD and enjoying it with friends seems like the perfect excuse to get your own audience together.

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