SXSW Review: Leaves of Grass

By  · Published on March 13th, 2010

We all know Edward Norton is talented, but probably the truest and scariest test for an actor’s talent is playing opposite himself, thus having to encounter the insecurities and limitations of one’s skill in both action and reaction. Few actors have done a great job acting opposite themselves (Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Nic Cage in Adaptation. are the only two that come immediately to mind), and it’s something that could potentially be fatal even with a strong actor giving two performances at the center, but with Leaves of Grass Edward Norton can be added to that short list of great double-performances in a single film.

Norton plays Bill and Brady Kincaid, twins whose adult lives could not have become more different since their shared upbringing in rural Oklahoma. Bill is a Classics professor at Brown University – a rising star in academia who is in the process of being given a major promotion – while Brady stayed in Oklahoma, accent and all, using his allegedly superior intellect to revolutionize the growing process of marijuana and creating a potent new product. Brady fakes his own death to convince Bill to return to his southern hometown and blindsides Bill with the proposition that Bill act as Brady’s double so that he has an alibi as he tries to cut ties with his Tulsa financier Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Meanwhile, Bill develops a love interest with a striking Walt Whitman-quoting English teacher (Keri Russell), attempts reconnection and forgiveness of his mother (Susan Sarandon), dodges the bullets of a sex scandal with a student back home, and is forced to avoid the interference of a rather invasive orthodontist (Josh Pais).

Obviously, Leaves of Grass has a lot to juggle, and writer-director Tim Blake Nelson (who also costars in the film) handles the many idiosyncratic characters and intersecting subplots adeptly. In viewing the first two-thirds of the film, one doesn’t become overwhelmed by all the goings-on as Nelson implements these story elements with a tempo that keeps us on our feet. Bill and Brady have great chemistry, are convincing in their history without any unnecessary exposition, and neither character feel like Edward Norton simply performing opposite himself – a feat by any standard.

As a born-and-raised Texan, I appreciate Nelson’s complex portrayal of the South. The region as depicted in Leaves of Grass contains a varied array of characters occupying different backgrounds and disparate cultures. Southernness is never conflated with ignorance (in fact, Bill often encounters situations where he reveals his own ignorance in dismissing his hometown), and southern culture is never used for an easy laugh. Nelson, who grew up in Oklahoma, obviously identifies with both Bill and Brady in terms of where his life could have gone. He has a tenable love for his home and the people in it, while acknowledging the defining particularities and oddities of that culture, and Nelson’s love manifests itself into characters that we the audience find all too easy to love.

Leaves of Grass exists across many planes. It isn’t a stoner comedy, and in some respects it’s hardly a comedy at all. The tone shifts drastically throughout, as moments of levity quickly morph into shocking violence or tragedy. After speaking with Nelson about the film, it became evident that he didn’t want Leaves of Grass to fit readily into the trappings of genre, instead mixing comedy, drama, violence, and irreverence in ways that would allow for a more complicated and ambiguous exploration of the themes within and reflecting the consequences that happen in every day reality but often aren’t witnessed in the limitations of movie logic.

The whole effort is admirable, Nelson has clear talent in all of filmmaking’s roles in front of and behind the camera (his knack for dialogue is particularly notable, as the film has several great one-liners), and Norton gives a great performance, but unfortunately Leaves of Grass falls prey to its ambitions in the third act. The changes in tone become too drastic, the narratives becomes haphazard and chaotic, and the many interlocking subplots and supporting characters don’t successfully integrate their stories into the film’s larger scope by the finale, leaving several loose ends that leave the time spent on its subplots unjustified. Leaves of Grass is enjoyable throughout, and a mostly solid film by a creative mind whose skills I’ll be anxious to see mature, which makes it unfortunate that something which laid the ground for this much promise in its first two acts falls apart by the third.

Leaves of Grass will open in theaters on April 2, 2010.