Leaves Of Grass Movie Review: Lighting Up Whitman And Weed

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Negotiating a truce between the warring sides of your nearly split personality by conceiving that conflict as a battle between a set of identical twins on screen, can be a tricky affair. Add to that a single actor doing double duty as both of them, and that endless distraction from the already fractured alternately goofy and tragic proceedings, can be a disorienting affair. Even if Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves Of Grass, prepackaged in a heavily coated mind-altering haze of, well grass, is meant to blow your mind when not pulling your leg.

An actor turned filmmaker, Nelson likely cut his clownish directing teeth while doing time under that other set of surreal siblings, Joel and Ethan Coen, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. With Leaves Of Grass, Nelson frames character difference as a red state versus blue state saga pitting snobby East Coast academia against radically redneck anti-social incorrigibility. And since it soon becomes clear that Nelson himself identifies more with his transplanted Ivy League intellectual persona than his deeply alienated heartland Oklahoma Jewish roots, the hillbilly culture he invokes through the dissipated evil twin left behind, is on occasional insanely satirical but shaky ground indeed.

Edward Norton is Bill Kincaid in Leaves Of Grass, a control freak classics professor without a life who teaches at Brown University. And who is fond of delivering cautionary lectures about forsaking passion for discipline like Socrates, as opposed to the ill-fated Daedalus crash landing with bum wings into the sea. Unfortunately the most appreciative of his students includes a horny coed stalker who favors sexually cornering Kincaid in his office, while sending him suggestive notes in Latin as premeditated involuntary foreplay, and in which ‘the adjectives thrust into the verbs’ somewhat deliberately.

So when ensuing rumors intimating scandalous teacher-student relations surface, Kincaid almost relishes leaving town for a bit when summoned to the funeral back in Oklahoma, of a drug dealing felon brother he’s spent years avoiding, his unruly identical twin Brady which Norton also plays. But messy details soon arise, including the fact that Brady is still very much alive but needs Bill around to serve as an alibi when he’s up to no good. While Bill himself has engaged in some deliberate subterfuge, having hidden a hayseed background he’s embarrassed about. And also going to great lengths to lose his rural twang, for an urban speech decidedly on the more academically pretentious side.

And while the distressed professor soon finds himself dodging homicidal potheads and a former sixties free spirit mom (Susan Sarandon) who’s prematurely dropped out once again and checked into a nursing home, a local schoolteacher (Keri Russell) catches his eye. Though she has a lesson of her own in mind for the know-it-all uptight egghead, as she lovingly recites Walt Whitman free verses down by the river, while gutting catfish caught by hand. But what appears like a far too tropical Oklahoma, actually filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana.

As much a movie about fraternal brawling as contentious dysfunction within the greater divided national family, Leaves of Grass may make references to complex philosophical issues, but the overall tone tilts towards lightweight lunacy on the fragmented side. Though a few surreal surprises like an Old Testament gun wielding orthodontist with financial problems, a Jewish menorah wielded as a deadly weapon, and a suspicious swastika scrawled backwards at a Tulsa synagogue crime scene in this classics versus crime caper, all count as wildly amusing all natural high plot points.

First Look Studios

Rated R

2 1/2 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.