From The Parallax Review Vaults: Leaves of Grass (2010)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Leaves of Grass was for the “Bargain Bin” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Every month, at least one movie is quietly shuffled onto DVD despite having major stars and intriguing premises. Bargain Bin seeks to find the direct-to-video features unjustly buried by studios.

I like to imagine that if Richard Kelly had directed Pineapple Express, it might have resembled Leaves of Grass. Combining a traditional genre film with unexpected plot twists and a healthy dollop of philosophical musings, the film resembles a comedic version of what Kelly tried to pull off with The Box. Also taking a page from the playbook of the Coen brothers (with whom he worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou?), writer/producer/director/costar Tim Blake Nelson offers up a shaggy dog comedy about an uptight Brown University philosophy professor and his marijuana-growing twin brother that takes a sudden right turn into very dark territory in its surprisingly violent second act.

Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is the professor — a man who strives to live a reasoned, controlled life in reaction to the anarchic childhood he received from his mother (Susan Sarandon) in rural Oklahoma. When he receives news that his twin brother, Brady (also Norton, obviously), has been murdered, he returns to his hometown for the first time in twelve years. Once home, he discovers Brady alive and well. He claims to have played dead to lure Bill back because he misses him, but in actuality, he wants his help. It seems that Brady is the biggest and best grower of marijuana in southeastern Oklahoma. The only problem is that he owes Tulsa drug kingpin Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss) $200,000 for helping him set up his state-of-the-art grow house. Rothbaum wants either his money back or for Brady to help him sell hard drugs, to which Brady is morally opposed. Bill initially refuses to help Brady, but eventually he is worn down by his brother’s pleas and agrees to assist him in a scheme to get out from under Rothbaum’s thumb. That everything that can go wrong does, is not surprising. What is surprising is just how bloody events get before the credit’s roll.

It’s easy to see why the film had only the briefest of theatrical releases (it played in only six theaters before it was released on DVD one month later). Despite its stellar cast, this film is a marketing department’s worst nightmare. It skips along through roughly four different genres, has a twisty plot that’s impossible to predict, and often stops all the action and jokes so characters can have philosophical debates about the existence of God.

Before he was a filmmaker, Nelson was a professor of philosophy. It’s small wonder that he focuses so much attention on not just Bill’s interpretations of traditional philosophical movements, but also the stoned ramblings of Brady and his best friend Bolger (Nelson). The fact that Nelson presents both viewpoints as equally valid says a lot about his ability to sidestep the clichés of many films that feature snobby intellectuals or stoners. He doesn’t pretend debating the merits of different philosophies or trying to live your life by them is something to be taken seriously, nor does he feels it’s something to be mocked. But the fact that Bill, Brady, and, to a certain extent, Bolger have made something more out of their lives than many of the rural screw-ups that litter the background says something about the benefits of intellectual curiosity. It’s a nice, unpretentious message underlining a seriously goofy story.

With the dense main plot and the philosophical undercurrent, Nelson tries to keep too many balls in the air. He loses track of Norton’s performance as Brady, letting him go too far over-the-top with a redneck mullet and ridiculous accent. A romantic subplot between Bill and a local poet (Keri Russell) is underdeveloped. And the same lack of development plagues a bizarre subplot about an orthodontist (Josh Pais) that Bill meets on his flight to Oklahoma. But Norton’s turn as Bill is a pitch-perfect comedic performance that keeps him sympathetic even as he does very stupid things to back up Brady’s undercooked scheme, balancing out his missteps on the other side of his dual role.

But, as always, I will never punish a filmmaker for being to ambitious. Nelson could have rested on his laurels and offered up a smirking stoner comedy. The film probably would have been given a decent theatrical release had he done so. But it wouldn’t have been as unique and semi-insane as what he ended up making. Working best as a comedy with a brain and a crime film that offers unexpected surprises, Leaves of Grass is a film that deserves to find a cult audience on DVD.

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