TIFF 09 Review: Leaves of Grass
Director: Tim Blake Nelson (O, The Grey Zone)
Writer: Tim Blake Nelson
Producers: Bill Migliore, Tim Blake Nelson, Edward Norton, John Langley, Kristina Dubin, Elie Cohn
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Norton, Tim Blake Nelson, Keri Russel, Susan Sarandon, Melanie Lynskey, Richard Dreyfuss
MPAA Rating: 14-A (UK)
Running time: 105 min.
Like Adaptation, Leaves of Grass clear gimmick is the use of a high caliber actor for two very different characters within the same film and indeed force them to work together as the story calls for it. While I enjoyed Leaves of Grass for what it was, it didn’t do a whole lot in terms of bringing anything to the proverbial table. If anything, it took an interesting concept and really dumbed it down. Not that there aren’t a lot of things to like, but Edward Norton is better than this film gives him credit for and Tim Blake Nelson seems to continue to wallow in his mire of mediocrity.
Norton plays both of the two Kincaid Brothers. Bill is a clean-cut, intelligent professor of philosophy with an offer to teach at Harvard; Brady is an Oklahoma hillbilly who’s chosen career path is that of a highly skilled pot farmer/dealer. When Brady gets into some rough criminal/financial trouble (the potentially deadly kind), he fakes his own death in order to get Bill to finally agree to come back to Oklahoma – a world Bill left years ago and promised himself he’d never return. Once back in town, Bill realizes he’s been duped but reluctantly agrees to stay (partly due to a new found love interest) and even more reluctantly goes along with a scheme that sets himself up to pretend to be his brother so that when his brother commits an out of town crime against a rival drug lord, he can claim he was in town the entire time. Of course a series of minor mishaps ensue which spiral more and more out of control and possibly dooming the unlikely duo.
Norton is no stranger to playing dual roles, though if my cinematic memory serves, this is the first time in which the two roles appear on screen at the same time and indeed interact with one another. The most enjoyable aspect of this film is of course watching Edward Norton impressively take on the dual role and working both extremes like a puppet master. No matter what the story, watching Norton work his craft (particularly as the seemingly dim-witted hick brother) is always a nice experience. Throwing him into situations with the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon and Tim Blake Nelson (a better actor than director) only helps him play the part more effectively and with more flare.
The problem is that it seems the gimmick of putting two Norton’s on screen at the same time was the premise and then a story was built up around this idea rather than vice-versa. Had there been a slightly more compelling drama or thriller on paper first, then the idea of having two characters played by the same person added later, this might have worked better. As it stands, it’s a pretty paint-by-numbers sort of story that really leaves little emotional impact.
The other main concern I have is the question of what exactly is the film’s goal. Clearly the movie is mostly played for laughs, but there are some really violent outbursts at times that were very surprising and to be honest not particularly welcome given the over mood of the film up to that point. But simply some excessive violence isn’t really the problem. It’s the dark road the movie twists into for the final act. It feels a little out of place and really seems forced just to offer us some sort of action or sense of urgency. Unfortunately it doesn’t really do either as the tone of the film is set pretty early on and it’s clear where things are likely to end up anyway.
The movie makes some attempts at sounding smart with a few philosophical discussions between characters or some reciting of poetry that are supposed to explain or justify their actions. It might be construed as metaphorical or even interesting by some, but I found it to be simply distracting and not especially relevant.
So while there’s quality acting here and a premise that has potential to be of interest, this was really a by the book type of story that offered little in terms of being compelling or trying anything new. Fortunately the actors carry the story on their shoulders (most notably and obviously Norton) and to be fair the script isn’t completely inept, it just didn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. It’s got heart and I can appreciate that, but I think unless you’re a hard core Edward Norton fan I’d think twice before spending a lot of money on this one. Not horrible, but certainly not something I’m going to sit down with again any time soon and I’m starting to worry that Nelson may never find the project one can really sink his teeth into and contruct a masterpiece. Advice: avoid the gimmicks and remakes and strive for a project that offers something new and/or challenging. Even if you fail Mr. Nelson, at least you’re attempting to show me something new – which I will appreciate.