Leaves of Grass is that film that comes around, maybe only once or twice a year, that I really feel sorry for. Even if I didn't like the movie ultimately I would have pity for such a project that tried to do something just a little different. Here is a film by the character actor and sometimes director Tim Blake Nelson, who you may have seen in O'Brother Where Art Thou (you'll know him when you hear him and maybe see him) or possibly behind the camera (the 2001 movie 'O' which is highly underrated). It stars Edward Norton. And also Edward Norton. One of the Edward Norton's isn't quite like the other, even though they're identical twins, one of whom hides his Oklahoma accent. See what they did there?
Why feel sorry for it if it got released? The fact is it almost, kind of, didn't. Its original release was scheduled in April or May of this year, and just as it was planned for a good-ol' opening at the Angelika and art-house theaters of the like (including a Q&A session with Nelson and Norton I was much anticipating), it was all pulled because of a "new" distributor that would give the film, reportedly, a much bigger push than it had before. Fine, good for them, maybe it was really worth it after spending such an amount of time going around the festival circuit. Now September comes around, the film gets released... in six theaters, and with little to not advertising about its release. If I wasn't keyed into all of the movie theaters in downtown NYC, it would've passed me by. To be sure the film will get a DVD release- sooner most definitely than later so that First-Look Studios who released it can start getting their money back- but the cryin' shame comes from that being what has to be done.
Is Leaves of Grass a mainstream movie? Maybe not, but maybe in some weird way so. It's like a low-key independent version of Pineapple Express to some degree. The two Nortons, played by one ala Nicolas Cage in Adaptation., are the Kincaides, a brainy philosophy professor who is on the cusp of getting a job at Cambridge University, and a brainy pot dealer who has made his own revolutionary hydroponics system for growing his wacky-tobacco. Bill, the professor, is lured down to the old homestead in Oklahoma as he heard his brother is, well, dead, shot by a crossbow. This is just pretext for Bill to come down and for Brady to hatch his brilliant idea: Bill will go around as Brady (Brady gets a bad haircut and shaves his beard, hard to get rid of the accent like Bill did) as a kind of alibi as Brady has some shady drug deals with a big-shot Jewish guy (and we are told up-front, as part of the comedy, that he's Jewish played by Richard Dreyfuss). Oh, and Bill could visit his mother too, it's been so long after all.
Is the film so amazing as to warrant me to rush out to all my close friends and family and drag them by the wrist into the little Village East Cinema playing the movie for who-knows-how-many-more-days? Probably not. It does suffer a little from a few points in the screenplay from Nelson that are a little too easy given how crazy the premise is. It never goes into like Sweet Home Alabama territory or something (the fact that I can kind of remember that premise is scary enough, but I digress), but the addition of a female semi-love-interest in the adorable Keri Russell is one part of it, and another is how Nelson throws off the viewer by its tonal shift halfway through the movie. It seemed to fit for me - again, Pineapple Express' nonchalant attitude to mixing hysterical laid-back comedy and brutal violence, here more brutal than DG Green was able to put up - but I could see people being turned off by it. There's even a kind of poetic ironic twist near the end that had me both smile and gasp in shock at once, and it seemed to get in the way of an otherwise satisfying ending.
|And yes, we do have the black-lights here. Trippy.|
What Nelson does get right is the relationship between these two brothers, and how the two of them survive in the worlds they're in. There's some kind-of expected quirky humor with Bill as the professor who has the student that has the hots for him (and, most amusingly, writes very detailed Latin love letters with extra punctuations), and Brady as a cool but firm druggie with a wife and baby on the way. Seeing Edward Norton in these two different roles is a delight, and really the first time I can get excited about him on screen in a while (that is until Stone comes out this month). The surprise for me here is that Norton's Brady is so funny, at times even when he doesn't try to be, and I can't remember if Norton's ever gotten that kind of comedy out of himself before, which is a twangy near-but-not-over the top performance. In moments and scenes where the script lags Brady carries along some of the comedic weight. And his Bill is a good character as well and has his moments of freaking out and insanity.
Probably most surprising, though under-used, is Dreyfuss as the big-time guy Pug Rothbaum (what a name). He too is very funny, and not given nearly as much to work with as Norton. But the little he does use is rather brilliant; it's not simply a walk-on, it's a fully-formed character and performance, for how brief it is. Russell, again, brings some charm despite it being a conventional set-up and a couple of monkey-wrenching in Walt Whitman's poetry of the title. And Susan Sarandon stops by for some scenes as a mother staying in an old-age home despite not being quite old enough yet for the place.
Oh, it is a quirky movie, and a few times it does seem like odd quirk instead of the funny quirk it's going for. Yet Leaves of Grass ultimately is a good film, at times a really solid effort of dark comedy infused with real characters and uncomfortable, crazy situations that can spiral out of control. It won't win any awards, but it deserves its day in court, at some time or another. That it won't get much of one on the big screen is sad.