Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Review: Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass *** ½
Directed By:
Tim Blake Nelson.
Screenplay: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton (Bill/Brady Kincaid), Keri Russell (Janet), Melanie Lynskey (Colleen), Susan Sarandon (Daisy), Richard Dreyfuss (Rothbaum), Tim Blake Nelson (Bolger), Maggie Siff (Rabbi Zimmerman).

The opening scenes of Leaves of Grass seem to be a cross between a coming home story, a fish out of water comedy, and a stoner movie. But as the movie moves along, I was surprised by home involved I got in its story, how wrapped up I became in the characters. The movie sneaks up on you and ends up being quietly profound.

Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is a philosophy professor at a University in the Eastern USA. He comes from Oklahoma, but has done everything possible to put that behind him. He has gotten rid of his accent, and never goes back home from any reason. He has built up a sizable reputation for himself in his limited academic circle – so much so that Harvard comes calling, wanting to open a school of philosophy built around him. Life is good. That is before he gets a call from back home telling him that his twin brother Brady (Norton again) has been killed in a freak crossbow accident. This confuses his assistant, until he assures her that crossbows are “oddly popular where I come from”.

Of course, Brady isn’t actually dead. While he has just as high an IQ as Bill does, he has funneled his brains into an illegal pot growing operation. He grows the best pot in the area, and everyone knows it. That is why Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss), the local gangster, wants him to expand his operation. Brady owes Rothbaum a lot of money, but doesn’t want to expand. He calls Bill back home because he’s going to see Rothbaum, and doesn’t know how things will play out. If he has to kill him, Bill can provide him with an alibi by being in their small hometown where everyone will see him. Since Bill is never home, everyone will just assume that he is Brady. It’s actually a rather ingenious scheme when you think about it.

Nothing about Leaves of Grass turns out how we expect it to. Sure, we know that Bill will start to realize what he is missing back home, and he does fall for the local beauty Janet (Keri Russell), who is also smart and funny. And while that does happen, the movie takes a rather interesting route getting there. We know there are problems between Bill and his mother Daisy (Susan Sarandon), but when the expected heart to heart does take place, it doesn’t go as we think it will. Some old wounds never heal, you simply have to except them and move on.

Brady’s friend Bolger (writer/director Tim Blake Nelson) is another interesting example. When we meet him, we assume that he is just another Southern fried hillbilly, but he surprises us with just how sensitive, and yes, intelligent he is. In fact, all of the characters in the movie are like that. We assume we know who they are, but they surprise us throughout. Nelson, who is making his fourth film (following three strong efforts in Eye of God, O and The Grey Zone), has certainly seemed to learn from the Coen brothers, who he worked for in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film strikes a similar comic tone, yet surprises us with its depth.

The performances anchor the movie, none more than Edward Norton who does his best work in years as the Kincaid twins. These two characters strike us initially as polar opposites. Bill is the buttoned down tight ass professor, and Brady the freewheeling drug dealer, yet Norton lets us see their similarities. He is obviously having a blast playing a redneck like Brady, but the character remains grounded in reality. Norton is one of the most talented actors of his generation, but has developed a reputation of being difficult, which may explain why he often works with first time directors. Here though, given a chance to shine, he truly does. He delivers a pair of fine performances.

The rest of the cast isn’t nearly as well written as the twins are, yet the actors make up for it. Russell is playing the idealized woman, yet makes her a little more vulnerable than normal. Melanie Lynsky, having a great year with this along with Away We Go and The Informant, is quite funny as Brady’s pregnant girlfriend. Sarandon is unapologetic as the mother, who is just waiting to die. And Richard Dreyfuss has not been this good in years, playing a Jewish gangster with a strange accent that is part Brooklyn Jew, and part Southern hillbilly.

Leaves of Grass remains a comedy throughout – with witty dialogue and clever set-ups, but it never loses sight of what it is – a character study. This is as intelligent as modern comedies get.

Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2009, and the film has yet to receive a proper release. It played in Chicago earlier this year, and apparently it opened in New York over this past weekend. I’m not sure why the film hasn’t gotten a proper release yet, and I have a feeling that most people are going to have wait to DVD to see movie. Please don’t miss it.

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