DVD Review: Tim Blake Nelson’s black “pot” comedy Leaves of Grass stars Edward Norton in a dual role as very opposite twin brothers. But while it may poke silly, sometimes sloppy and disjointed fun at both academia and redneckery, at heart it’s a gripping satire about the Nature of Humans.
Leaves of Grass is intentionally created to defy expectations and categorization: It’s a Coen-esque comedy with sudden, graphic violence. It’s a satire of both sides of the Red State-Blue State cultural divide. It’s about Classical philosophy and hydroponic pot growing. It’s a treat for Edward Norton fans as he plays two very different twin brothers, but some may find both his performances broader and more slapstick-y than they’re used to from the intense actor. All of this has Leaves of Grass coming at you from a half-dozen different, and sometimes contradictory directions. And yet, I really like the film for exactly that reason.
Norton plays Bill, a buttoned-down Ivy League professor of Classical philosophy—the film opens with him giving a stage-setting lecture on the human dichotomy of discipline and passion, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Of course Norton also plays Bill’s twin brother Buddy, an Oklahoma scientist-artist who’s devoted his massive (smarter than Bill) brain power to creating the best possible marijuana. See? Discipline and passion! Logical, ordered Apollo and hedonistic, chaotic Dionysus!
The twins are reunited when Buddy gets in deep with some Oklahoma drug cartels and needs Bill to come home and provide a look-alike alibi while Buddy takes care of some business. Along the way Bill checks back in with their once-free-spirited mother, Susan Sarandon, and meets a down-home poet, Keri Russell, who’s a lover of Walt Whitman’s rich American tradition of wild, self-expressive abandon (hence the film’s title). And she’s great at noodling for catfish.
Leaves of Grass is written and directed by Oklahoma native Tim Blake Nelson, probably best known for playing Delmar in the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (He was also in The Incredible Hulk with Norton.) As a character actor, Nelson is usually a buffoonish caricature, but as a playwright and writer-director, he’s very serious about approaching Big Issues from odd, satiric, sometimes silly angles. His brilliantly bleak 2001 concentration-camp film The Grey Zone (about imprisoned Jews forced to help run the ovens) is absolutely stunning and shattering—it’s one of the best fictional films about the moral nightmares of the Holocaust. Yes, it’s sharper and more philosophically complex than Schindler’s List.
Which is to say that Nelson—and Norton—are smarties. Leaves of Grass may seem like a goofy spoof on its surface, sometimes engaging in broad City Mouse/Country Mouse stereotypes; sometimes in wry, deadpan wit. But it takes equal swipes at academia and redneckery. (And Nelson’s interest in Jewish and anti-Semitism issues also rises again, with Richard Dreyfuss showing up as the drug kingpin of Oklahoma.)
Norton’s performance can sometimes feel a little shticky, especially as Buddy with his (Nelson-inspired) drawl and (weed-inspired) red bags under his eyes. But I like watching him do comedy—maybe he’s not a natural comic actor, but Norton comes at humor with the same focus and intensity he goes at heavier roles, and I find that appealing—and yes, funny. Nelson also acts in the film, playing Buddy’s loyal pal—a role that, like the film itself, starts out as a comic lark and winds up somewhere much more serious.
The soundtrack’s full of songs from John Prine, The Band, and Townes Van Zandt, as well as one from Steve Earle (who also appears in the film). If those names mean anything to you, then you get a sense of the poetic, melancholy search for transcendence that runs under all the sillier stuff about crossbows and black-light paintings. With Norton in dual roles and its broad, weed-fueled pokes, Leaves of Grass may seem at first like a stunt. But it continually surprises, right up to its sober closing message.
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More thoughtful satire and comedy from redbox:
- The Informant! (read my full review)
- The Joneses (read my full review)
- City Island (read my full review)
- Cemetery Junction (read my full review)
- Saint John of Las Vegas (with Nelson in a small role) (read more in my Picks)
- Big Fan (read my full review)
- The Men Who Stare at Goats (read my full review)
- The Invention of Lying (with Norton in a cameo) (read my full review)
- Happy Tears (read my full review)
- Greenberg (read my full review)
- Staten Island (read my full review)
- Defendor (read more in my Picks)
- World’s Greatest Dad (read James’ review)
- Pretty Bird (read more in my Picks)