Judge Bryan Byun was going to write this review, but then he got high.
"We are all breaking the world. It's time to repair it."
Leaves of Grass is an odd little gem of a movie, the kind only the Coen Brothers seem to be able to get away with anymore. Despite an impressively star-studded cast; including writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, Edward Norton, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Keri Russell; Leaves of Grass received a tiny theatrical release in a handful of theaters before being consigned to home video. Which isn't actually all that surprising, considering that the best way I can describe this film in one line is "What if Sophocles wrote a stoner comedy…and was from Oklahoma…and was Jewish…okay, forget it, just watch the movie."
Norton stars as Bill Kincaid, an Ivy League philosophy professor and a superstar in his field who's being courted by Harvard. Bill's cultivated New England veneer hides his rural Oklahoma roots. As a young man he fled his small town and his family, including his hippie mom (Sarandon) and twin brother Brady (also played by Norton), and has never looked back.
News of a family crisis lures Bill back to his hometown, where he's reunited with Brady, who, despite being the smarter of the pair, never left home and has contented himself with becoming a high-tech hydroponic pot farmer. It's not long before Bill's been ensnared in Brady's well-intentioned but sketchy machinations, and the film veers abruptly from a quirky city mouse/country mouse family comedy into something darker and less easily categorizable.
Leaves of Grass feels like a highly personal story from Tim Blake Nelson. He's a Tulsa native and creator of intelligent and arthouse-friendly fare (Eye of God, The Grey Zone) who, incongruously, often plays slow-witted country bumpkins onscreen. Leaves of Grass is a smart film about smart people, that happens to take place in the kind of rural, flyover-state setting city folk tend to dismiss. In this film—which takes its double-entendre title from Walt Whitman, its narrative structure from classical tragedy, and its morality from Judaism—Nelson lays out a kind of philosophical manifesto on how to live your life, and wraps it up in a story that comes across like Pineapple Express as directed by the Coens.
As befits a film about twins, in Leaves of Grass Nelson delights in playing with cinematic archetypes and pitting them against each other, causing profound statements about life to emerge from the mouths of rednecks in trucker caps riding in pickup trucks, or having the brothers engage in conversations about Heidegger between bong hits on the front porch. Comedic tropes—fancy city brother trying to impersonate hickish country brother, buttoned-up professor besieged by randy students—collide with moments of abrupt violence and deep sorrow. And Nelson may have made the first film ever to concern itself with the Jewish community of Tulsa.
If this all sounds insufferably precious and quirky…well, it is. It's the kind of movie that, if you resonate with its odd groove, can be emotionally involving and spiritually intellectually profound. Or, if you're not feeling it, it can all seem like a self-indulgent, unfunny wankfest. I went into Leaves of Grass expecting the latter, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself responding to the chemistry between the two brothers—a testament to Norton's acting ability—and engaged by the spiritual, moral, and philosophical ideas it plays with, often to poignant effect.
For a film that was practically a direct-to-home-video feature, Leaves of Grass gets a decent DVD release; with deleted scenes, interviews, and the highlight of the disc, a feature commentary with Nelson and Norton along with producer Bill Migliore. The commentary moves quickly, with funny and engaging repartee between the participants, and offers welcome insights into the themes and motivations behind the film's often puzzling choices.
It's impossible to wholeheartedly recommend a film this odd and ambitious, but Leaves of Grass is a smart, entertaining little film that rewards close viewing and an open mind.
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