Leaves of Grass, the latest film from writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson, is one of those rare films that defies both description and expectation. While marketed as a violent stoner comedy along the lines of Pineapple Express, Leaves of Grass is far more difficult to categorize. Yes, there is comedy, though not as much or of the type one would expect. And yes, there is violence, but a far more realistic and less cartoony variety than you would think. But there is much more to this little film – there is thought and reflection and philosophy and poetry behind every piece of dialogue, and you get drawn into it so that, halfway through the film, it doesn’t even strike you as odd that you just watched Keri Russell recite Walt Whitman while gutting a catfish.
As the film opens, we are introduced to the lead character, Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton in the first of his two roles here), a Classical Philosophy professor at Brown. We meet him as he lectures an adoring group of students on Plato and soon afterward is fighting off the advances of a young female student. Bill is clearly a brilliant academic, and is being courted by the big schools. We also learn about his humble roots; he grew up poor in a little town near Tulsa, and earned his way into the academic elite.
At this point we meet Bill’s twin brother (also played by Norton), pot-smokin’, weed-growin’ good ole boy Brady. Brady is still in Oklahoma, and is quite happy with his simple life. He has all the weed he can smoke, a loyal sidekick, and a girlfriend he’s about to marry with a baby on the way. Unfortunately, Brady has angered the local big city drug lord, a prominent member of the Tulsa Jewish community played by Richard Dreyfuss. No, that is not a typo. Richard Dreyfuss plays the villainous drug lord in Leaves of Grass, and he has one of the film’s highlights – an angry speech in which he laments the plight of the Jew through history, all done in a crazy redneck accent.
Not to give anything away, Brady tricks Bill into coming home, forcing him to face a few of the things he’s been running away from, the story takes a few twists and turns, changes tone once or twice, but continuously delights with its inventive story and wonderful performances.
Edward Norton as Bill/Brady turns in a dual performance on par with Dead Ringers or Adaptation. His portrayals are so consistent and finely detailed that he makes you completely forget about the cinematic trickery used to give the illusion that two actors are on screen. I completely bought every interaction between the brothers. What’s more, Norton is clearly having fun, especially when voicing Brady’s Matthew McConaugheyesque drawl.
Richard Dreyfuss, as mentioned earlier, is also a treat during his brief moments on screen, as is Josh Pais as a desperate orthodontist. Also noteworthy are Susan Sarandon as the twins’ mother, Keri Russell as the girl Bill takes a shine to, and Nelson himself, who steals many a scene as Bolger, Brady’s loyal sidekick, in a performance that will remind some of his work in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
And speaking of that particular gem, it is not the only Coen Brothers film to inform this one. Leaves of Grass is laced with the same kind of sensibilities found in movies like Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, especially in the way crime turns ugly and messy, no matter how well-planned. But it’s also similar in the way it features erudite rednecks – this movie is full of Oklahoma good ole boys discussin’ and philosophizin’ in completely unexpected ways, thumbing its nose at stereotypes as it goes. For example, we find out early on that when they were boys it was Brady who was considered ‘the smart one’, and when he tells Bolger his thoughts on God late in the film, we realize that he and Bill are more connected than we though possible. Brady, like the film itself, is far deeper and thoughtful than we would have imagined.
Leaves of Grass is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The print is very clean with a varied color palette that comes across with accuracy. The early university scenes are filled with cool blues and no warm colours of any kind, which makes the warm lived-in look of the Oklahoma scenes pop with even more contrast.
The disc comes with a Digital 5.1 Surround track as well as a 2.0 stereo track, with subtitles available in English and Spanish. The sound comes through very naturally, and dialogue is crisp and clear. The occasional bursts of violence are enhanced by the audio, but the dialogue is the focus of the film, and that is served very nicely by the clarity of the sound.
The disc has a single commentary track featuring Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton, and it is one of those tracks that is definitely worth listening to if you have any interest in the film-making process. It is loaded with anecdotes about the film and tons of insights into the way both artists approach their craft. What also comes through is their clear love for this project.
Automatic Trailers: As Good As Dead, The Locksmith, Dead Awake, Once Fallen
Theatrical Trailer (2:29)
Making of Leaves of Grass (11:37): A typical making-of featurette, this one is short but fun, with lots of nice little behind the scenes moments.
For me, Leaves of Grass was an unexpected treat. It’s fun to watch for many reasons, but there’s depth there, and it may be one of those films that makes it into the regular rotation, coming out every few years for another viewing (much like most of the Coen Brothers library). If you’re expecting something along the lines of Pineapple Express, you may be disappointed. But if you want something more, enjoy solid, quirky performances, and are not put off by occasional shocking violence in your comedies, Leaves of Grass may be worth a purchase.