Leaves of Grass
2010, R, 105 min. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Steve Earle, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Maggie Siff, Lee Wilkof, Ty Burrell.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 24, 2010
Is there anything more enticing to an actor or more fascinating for an audience than an identical-twin role? I suppose, probably, there is, but when the actor playing the dual role is Norton, the stakes are raised considerably, and when the part requires, as this one does, lightning-quick tonal and emotive switcheroos, well, that's something to savor. Part comedy, part tragedy, and wholly fascinating, Nelson's Leaves of Grass is strangely affecting and slightly off-kilter; it has enough genuine punch to overcome those seismic shifts in tone. In the end you're left wondering just how Norton, backed by an across-the-board terrific cast, pulled it off, exactly. Norton plays both Bill and Brady Kincaid. Bill is a something of a stoic rationalist, a classics professor at Brown University, where the female students are feverish to impress him with their mastery of the Latin subjunctive, and who is also on track for a major academic upswing. He's forcibly called away from the hallowed halls when he receives news of his brother's death (by crossbow, no less) back in Little Dixie, Okla. The brothers – and their mother (Sarandon, whip-smart as always) – have been estranged for years, and Bill regards his filial duties as a necessary chore. Once he arrives back in the sticks, however, he finds his long-haired, twang-tongued brother very much alive. The perpetually stoned (but radically intelligent) Brady, who has a wife and a child on the way and a Quonset hut overflowing with high-grade hydroponic pot in the backyard, is in trouble with a Tulsa drug boss. He needs Bill to provide him with an alibi so that Brady and his hangdog pal Bolger (Nelson) can get things straight. Or as straight as they can be in the crooked and leaning world of small-town Okie drug-dealing. That's the engine that drives the plot, but it's Norton's twinned performance here that keeps the film from bogging down into some sort of casual, countrified self-parody. As Bill readjusts to the strange, slower pace of his abandoned hometown, he also begins to reconcile his past with this bizarre new present; it doesn't hurt things that he's taken a shine to local poet/teacher Janet (Russell), who quotes Whitman and knows a thing or two about both Okie noodling and life upheavals. It sounds pat, but it's not. The script (by Nelson) mines parallel seams of black, Coen brothers-esque comedy and jolting, third-act violence. It's a jarringly realistic hybrid that echoes the more surreal aspects of real, rural life, and Norton walks/ambles through it all, sporting dueling personalities and distinct accents, but one very serious heart. (Edward Norton will be in attendance at the 8pm show on Friday.)