It is hard to understand why the organisers of So independent decided to schedule Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass as the opening film of the first edition of their festival, specially when two hours later at the Lumière cinema they had planned a screening of Ethan and Joel Coen’s A Serious Man.
Because, if you’re in a hurry and don’t feel like reading the whole review, the trouble with this movie can be summed up as follows: it could have been a good film had it been directed by the Coen Brothers. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
In Leaves of Grass Edward Norton plays the double role of Bill and Brady Kincaid, identical twins with nothing in common apart from their looks and their DNA. Bill is an Ivy League professor adored by his students and by his peers who leads a monotonous, uneventful existence in Boston, while Brady is a pot grower with a dangerous proneness to petty crime who is trying to start anew in his Oklahoma hometown now that his girlfriend is expecting a child.
Bill is reluctantly lured back to his hometown, where he hasn’t been for years, so that he can help Brady out in a rather farfetched scheme to get rid of the local Jewish drug kingpin, gracefully played by Richard Dreyfuss. In order not to reveal too much of the plot, I would say that through a series of unfortunate events the farce turns into tragedy in a space of 105 minutes in which the director tries to combine classical philosophy and drug dealing logic, meditations on the meaning of life and coarse humour only to mixed results.
Norton has already taken dual roles in the past. In Primal Fear, the film that placed him in the first rank of American young actors, he was nominated for an Oscar for his role of an altar boy with a dark side. Primal Fear is only a memorable film because of Norton’s performance. The scene where he claps his hands to Richard Gere and thus takes off his mask revealing the evil nature of his personality is hard to forget.
The problem with Norton’s role in Leaves of Grass is not how well he manages to pull off the trick of playing two different characters (which he arguably does), but whether he is any good in any of those two performances. Unfortunately, he isn’t. As the classical-philosophy professor Norton is good enough, but the long hair and the Oklahoma accent are not enough to give real life to the naughty brother. Exaggeration and histrionism have never been the best way to portray the quintessential Mid-Western, and Norton’s Brady is no exception.
From the beginning on the film, in the scene where Bill lectures his students on the meaning of life and the ultimately unattainability of happiness, it is clear that the director wanted to make a Kevin Smith movie with a little bit of not-so-deep intellectualism.
The film fails to convince as a whole because it never finds the right tone and because Blake Nelson lacks the visual virtuosity of the Coen Brothers or of Tarantino to find the right form to the subject-matter. Technically, Leaves of Grass is as simple as a Britney Spears film and the otherwise interesting plot twists come across clumsily and awkwardly. I said at the beginning that this could have been a good film at the hands of the Coens, maybe because just a few hours after watching Leaves of Grass I went to a screening of A Serious Man, a film in which the Coen Brothers indulge in their characteristic use of technical tricks: abrupt end of scenes, cuts, fades to black… Cinematic devices that could have cushioned and absorbed the sudden narrative changes better than the soft, conventional style Blake Nelson seems to prefer.
The director casts himself as Brady’s best pal and surrounds Norton with a good support cast that has to deal with rather featureless characters. Susan Sarandon, an actress in urgent need of a good film role, plays the twins’ secluded mother, while Melanie Lynskey, a wonderful actress whose name you may not recognise but whose face you certainly have seen if you’ve been going to the movies in the last fifteen years, plays Brady’s pregnant girlfriend. Keri Russel, who bravely keeps on trying to survive in American independent filmmaking, has the difficult task of bringing to life a character that would rather fit to her old TV hit Felicity than to a bloody story of drug dealers.
Edward Norton is a likable guy and a universally respected actor, and yet by looking at his filmography one realizes there are not so many memorable films in it. Not, at least, the ones everybody expected from someone who had such an impressive film debut in Primal Fear. Leaves of Grass won’t change that fact.
Is this film a complete waste of time? Not really, but if you want to watch a good identical twins film, you’d better turn to the Olivia de Havilland 1946 classic The Dark Mirror, if you want a good existential story about the evilness of fate you should revisit the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men and if you want to have a laugh with a marijuana comedy, just switch on the TV and wait for the next episode of Weeds. For what finally is a simple drugs comedy, director Blake Nelson bites off much more pot than he can chew.