One of our finest and most versatile screen actors, Edward Norton has played a neo-Nazi skinhead, a priest, a New York drug dealer, a European magician, a British diplomat, a doctor-turned-Hulk and even a criminal defendant with a split personality. In the comedy-thriller “Leaves of Grass,” Norton gets to up the ante by playing two characters — Bill Kincaid, a buttoned-down and buttoned-up Ivy League professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, and his estranged, identical twin Brady, a scruffy, tattooed marijuana grower from a part of southeastern Oklahoma known as “Little Dixie.”
“Leaves of Grass,” which made its DVD debut this week, is a clever, violent and insightful film from writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, who also costars as Brady’s even scruffier sidekick, Bolger. It’s also a movie with a checkered past. Independently financed on a low budget, it generated good responses from audiences at the Toronto and South By Southwest film festivals, but had its opening postponed several times by its distributor and generated mixed critical reviews. The movie eventually received only a very limited theatrical release last month before going to DVD.
In any event, Nelson weaves an engaging tale about roots and rationality. Bill Kincaid is a rising star in academia, about to be offered a newly created position at Harvard, when he learns that his twin brother back home in Oklahoma, whom he hasn’t seen in a dozen years, has been murdered. It turns out that Brady has faked his own death in order to lure his brother back home to take part in a dangerous scheme. But Brady also wants his brother to reconnect with their mother (Susan Sarandon), a depressed child of the ’60s who has placed herself in a retirement home despite being more than a decade younger than all the other residents.
The scheme involves Brady dealing with a threat from a powerful and dangerous businessman/drug kingpin from Tulsa, one Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Pug wants Brady to expand his marijuana-growing operation, which Pug financed, into manufacturing other more dangerous and profitable drugs. Brady, who is prone to waxing philosophically about the natural wonders of his hydroponically grown weed, resists.
Nelson also throws in a romantic interest for Bill back in Oklahoma in the form of a Walt Whitman-quoting teacher/poet named Janet (Keri Russell) hence the movie’s title, which aligns one of Whitman’s most famous collections of poetry with a wry reference to what Brady is growing. Complicating and enriching matters are a Jewish orthodontist (Josh Pais) Bill meets on his plane ride back home, a redneck rival of Brady’s (singer-songwriter Steve Earle) and a female rabbi (Maggie Siff).
Holding this all together is Norton’s brilliant, seamless performance in the dual role and the inherent drama in a conflict between identical twins. (Stories about twins go back to ancient times; as an inside joke here, discussed by Nelson in the DVD commentary, one of Bill Kincaid’s academic achievements is his translation of a play about identical twins by the ancient Roman writer Plautus.)
Brady may seem, on first appearance, to be a fun-loving good old boy with a ’70s-style Tom Petty haircut, Southern drawl and a penchant for pot, but he’s also a brilliant horticulturist and, when pushed, a warrior. As his mother reminds him, Brady actually has a higher IQ than his brother. Bill, on the other hand, has successfully transformed himself into a brilliant and successful scholar, thoroughly rejecting his Oklahoma roots. Scarred by a mother he views as irresponsible and a brother he sees as living dangerously and stupidly, he clings to order and discipline in his own life. It’s hard to imagine another actor besides Norton pulling off such disparate, yet surprisingly akin, roles.
“Leaves of Grass” mingles seemingly incompatible genres it’s a stoner comedy, to be sure, but also a thriller with scenes of surprising violence. Making it even more unique are threads that come out of writer-director-costar Nelson’s own life. Each of the key characters express, in varying degrees of articulateness, a particular viewpoint or philosophy of life. While set largely in the dichotomous worlds of East Coast academia and rural Oklahoma, “Leaves of Grass” also takes a few side trips to Tulsa’s small Jewish community. As Nelson explains in his DVD commentary with Norton (who also co-produced the movie) and coproducer Bill Migliore, he studied philosophy at Brown and actually modeled Bill Kincaid after one of his favorite professors. He’s also Jewish, grew up in Tulsa and had a wild older brother.
If this all sounds like a movie that could have been made by the Coen Brothers, that’s both accurate and a compliment. Nelson, who shares a Midwestern Jewish background with Ethan and Joel Coen (and thanks the Coens in the movie’s credits), has a similar wry sense of humor and a predilection for surprising, even shocking, twists in dramatic tone and imagery.
“Leaves of Grass” isn’t perfect. Russell’s Janet is too good to be true as a lure for Bill to stay in Oklahoma, playing a smart and soulful poet, an Oklahoman who also left for a while but decided to return home. And while Nelson’s jokes about Tulsa Jewry are witty and sharp for the most part, Pug Rothbaum’s wielding of a Menorah to fend off attackers seems a little too over the top.
Still, “Leaves of Grass” is very much worth watching, especially for a performance by Edward Norton that would receive Oscar consideration if the Academy voters paid attention to little films that never obtain a proper release, and for a story that can make you think, laugh, cringe and maybe even cry.