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Drug movies rarely get spread out past a singular dimension. So much so that the "drug movie" label sounds disparaging, and it's used that way intentionally. :Leaves of Grass has a lot of pot in it, but there's so much more going on behind the smoke. Thought processes oppose each other, ethics get breached, and estranged identical twins reunite in the middle of a bad situation that only gets worse. And it's all wrapped up in a surreal, witty, tone-shifting crime story that never lets up on the laughs. I wasn't surprised I liked it, but I didn't expect to enjoy it on so many levels. The title alone has its multiple meanings. And the phrase "guzzled your custard" is contained within. Nuff said.
If you've any appreciation for consistently solid acting, the next sentence alone should sell this movie. A refined Ed Norton plays opposite a redneck Ed Norton in a film written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, costarring Tim Blake Nelson. I suppose something could have gone wrong, in the sense that any movie has the possibility of failing. I recognize genre staples that almost become clichéd, but there are only so many places a plot like this can go. Does that limit it? Not at all. The grass is always greener a few seconds later.
BIll Kincaid (Norton) is a professor of philosophy, published and respected, and more than just admired by the females he teaches. His precise, confrontation-free life is disrupted when he's called upon return to the small Oklahoma town where he grew up. His brother Brady (Norton) is a high I.Q. small scale marijuana farmer. Small scale in a national sense; his state-of-the-art growhouse is supplying much of the surrounding area, due to Brady's perfected techniques for growing the most potent of the herbs, which he sees to with best friend Bolger (Nelson). Thing is, Brady is heavily in debt to the money man, Tulsa Jew drug lord Pug (Richard Dreyfuss). This, combined with his frustrations with ex-hippie mother Daisy (Susan Sarandon), is exactly why BIll has stayed far from his hometown for so long. But news of Brady's apparent murder brings him back.
The less known about anything else, the better, but that's rarely shut me up before. So....it's all a set-up. Brady isn't dead at all. He just needs BIll to be in town for a scheme he's concocted. And within this overarching plotline, most of the points connect; the occasional spurts of blood and violence add welcome suspense in what is really a meditation on happiness. So we'll leave the twisty crime stuff, including a wacky Ben Stiller-esque performance by Josh Pais as a desperate orthodontist, for when you actually watch the movie, which I know you will.
Once this character-specific element is removed, Leaves of Grass becomes universally relatable. BIll is trying to achieve a balance in his life that has seemingly come to fruition. His career has reached unforeseen heights, and he's kept to the same morals and ethics that directly oppose his upbringing. Yet his opening monologue, a winning class lecture, is summed up by saying that our assumed methods of reaching happiness are illusory. If all you want is money and fame, money and fame will not make you happy. And with a warm, involved script, Nelson mostly succeeds in proving this by romanticizing the easy-going ways of the South. I'm not sure if pleasant family life and low pressure living are altogether more positive than a steady job with benefits, but the idealist in me agrees on certain levels.
With the contrasting roles of Brady and BIll, Edward Norton outdoes himself, as he tends to in every third movie or so. The differences between the brothers are numerous and completely believable. It isn't just Norton adding a slow drawl to his voice; he transforms himself similar to his stellar performance in Primal Fear. Brady is a hick pothead, definitely, but this combination doesn't make him an ignorant human being (for one of the first times in cinematic history). The path he has created for himself is the one that guides him, the marijuana his introspective muse. Opposingly, Bill is an achiever, working toward some unseen ends, allowing the familial gap to inspire him. But Bill thinks that learning about something is the same as experiencing it.
That these character traits are even worth discussing in a "mistaken identity movie" is a testament to the oddly realistic tone the movie exhibits, and Norton's unique acting skills. You actually care about them. Tim Blake Nelson, not to be outdone, steals every scene he's in as the lovable sidekick. Brady and Bulger scenes play as natural as the buds that seal their bond. Brady's pregnant fiancé Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) doesn't play in largely, but it's a lasting performance. BIll gets a boy-meets-girl story with Brady's friend Janet (Keri Russell), a poet who quotes poems, and only sounds half pretentious. Dreyfuss's limited screentime is offbeat and genius The supporting cast, full of twangy southerners, are as interesting as the main players.
Fear not, Leaves of Grass is nowhere near as jumbled as I am when I speak about it. Rarely does an actor pull off a twin role as well as this, and it's never distracting. The story isn't the most original, but the perspective from which it's told is rare. The dialogue will sometimes move the plot forward, but more often it gives insight to the person speaking, which makes the plot more delicate and personal. It's a movie about religion that isn't for religion. And it almost makes getting stoned look eloquent. Smoke em if you got em. Light- or clearheaded, you'll take more than enough away from Leaves of Grass to bring you back a few more times.
I'll go ahead and say Leaves of Grass is not a movie that gains anything by being seen on Blu-ray. It's a good looking movie, sure, but the sparse features are the same as the DVD, so let your budget be your decider here.
Tim Blake Nelson, Edward Norton, and producer Bill Migliore contribute a quick-paced and interesting commentary. They're genuinely funny guys, and they attention to all the proper things. (Genuinely enjoyable but unremarkable things are hard to describe sometimes.) An eleven minute making-of is light and decent. All the usual concepts (cast, story, director, etc.) are covered, and a bit of subtext is added to the film. Unfortunately, those are the only two features. Quality over quantity, I guess. It's all worth it.
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