by Marc Bauer
Note: ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a big hit at the Toronto Film Festival, is slated to open nationwide this coming Friday, Apr. 2.
Leaves of Grass, is something unique; an intelligent drug thriller, featuring identical twins, named after a Walt Whitman poetry collection, with a pro-Israel message. Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, best known for playing country bumpkins and rednecks in film. Similar to the character Bill (played by Edward Norton), Tim is well-read, and fled Oklahoma to the hallowed halls of Brown University’s Classics department; Bill is there as a teacher, Tim was there as student. The story, without giving it all away, is of twins Bill and Brady Kincaid. Bill is a well respected professor at Brown University; Brady is a hydroponic marijuana farmer in lower Oklahoma. The dichotomy between the two couldn’t be clearer, but as we learn in the film, it isn’t that cut and dry. Brady is actually the smarter of the two brothers, but Bill is trained into academia. In fact, the film opens on him lecturing a class on Socrates and passion. Once we see our lives as we believe to be in balance, we pretend at divinity, and like Icarus, only to see it all fall apart, crashing to the sea. Balance yields into chaos, and so too, does the story. Bill’s life is quickly changed when he is informed that his brother has been killed via crossbow, whereupon he returns home to find his brother very much alive. It is a simple devise that allows the story to unfold naturally.
Early in the film, Susan Sarandon, as Daisy Kincaid, asks of her son Brady, ‘What’s your version of proper grammar?’ He replies that it is all about rhythm; much like Walt Whitman. At one point in the film, Whitman’s style is described as “pure, unashamed passion, with no restrictions.” Ever the academic, Bill asks, ‘How you know what is true?’ In response he is told, ‘in poetry, you make your own rules’. The film has that very philosophy at its core; the shots in the movie aren’t overly concerned with the blocking within them. The camera in this film is an observer, never interfering, even going so far as to spy on characters in black lighting, casting pallor over the faces of Bill and Brady. The black light takes away the artifice, showing us the imperfections. We are made to look at these brothers, who have made very different life decisions this way, and see the differences. By the following morning, the physical differences are all but removed; Brady has cut his hair and shaved his beard. What we saw as divergent just a moment ago is presented again. Now looking similar, we can debate what makes one man any different from another. Edward Norton as Bill and Brady inhabits two bodies in this film. In Bill he is a well-spoken, accent free academic; a superstar of the intelligentsia, many times published, and offered his own department at Harvard. In Brady, he is a drawling, tattooed, country boy; a pot farmer with conscience, a man with a pregnant girlfriend ready to make a change in his life. Nelson doesn’t let a ‘hick’ accent mean you can’t speak intelligently. The words that come from Brady’s mouth are just as witty and ponderous as those espoused by Bill. He reads everything his brother has published, and argues with his use of big words. “I sat there with the dictionary,” he says, “and not the Merriam Webster’s, but the Motherfucking O.E.D.!” Ed Norton, in one interview, claimed it was that line that made him want to make this movie; brilliance and hilarity all at once. That is the formula that makes this movie work so well; the combination of the comedy and the intelligence. It could have been made more low-brow, and tried for a Cheech and Chong level of comedy, or could have attempted to be more intelligent and tried to emulate Wes Anderson. Instead, this film aims for the direction that films like Saving Grace or Homegrown took us before. Marijuana is not just the fodder for Up in Smoke and Half-Baked any longer. With decriminalization occurring across the country, more films are showing up portraying marijuana as more than a giggle weed. As Brady says, it is nature’s very definition of goodness.
But, beyond the drug storyline, there is a deeper meaning in the film. Divinity and religion is discussed repetitively through the film. Judaism is the religion of choice within the film, with Dreyfuss’ appearing as a pro-Zion businessman that funded Brady’s business. He is first seen in a synagogue, where we meet a female rabbi. Bill has a discussion with the Rabbi following a hate crime involving backwards swastikas (a throwaway joke about the criminals being Hindu is even made, showing a nuanced level of wit within the script) where she explains a Jewish belief known as “Tikkun Olam” or “Repairing the World.” ”Tikkun Olam” is a belief that through our actions, mankind is fixing the world, not merely because of religious imperative, but also out of social conscience. The concept is an easy way to summate the unconscious actions of our characters that they operate towards a greater good; whether the actions can be seen as locally or globally beneficial is another debate entirely. This film is equal parts comedy, thriller, and philosophy. That recipe is something that doesn’t sound like a good time, but the characters are welcoming, the locations charming, and the pacing deliberate. This film continues Tim Blake Nelson’s string of fine work, and I look forward to seeing more form him as a writer/director, as well as an actor. He is very adept at working both sides of the camera, making him just as much a false set of twins as Edward Norton’s Bill and Brady Kincaid.