Heady stuff, but plot feels forced rather than organic
First Look Studios
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson
Written By: Tim Blake Nelson
Cast: Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Josh Pais, Melanie Lynskey
Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 3/23/10
Opens: April 2, 2010
In his production notes, Tim Blake Nelson says that we all try tofind balance in our lives: between order and rationality, between chaos and spontaneity. This is another way of interpreting Aristotle's notion that the happy life finds a mean between two opposite poles, a happy medium. "Leaves of Grass" quotes not only the obvious author, Walt Whitman, but philosophers like Epicurus, Aristotle and Socrates; the playwrights Shakespeare, Plautus and Sophocles; even Lucretius, about whom one horny young coed in the story provides a translation.
This is heady stuff, the making of a film that would go over big with highbrows, yet have enough comedy and melodrama to make a hit with the groundlings, yet ironically its shifts in tone from comedy to melodrama, from refined characters to screw-ups, make the movie neither here nor there. It would seem to fit in neither the art-house theaters nor the mainstream 'plexes, though Edward Norton would create quite a draw for all levels. The idea of twin brothers who appear regularly in the same frames of the 104-minute film, not only in the stereotypical cross-cuts but even in one scene that shows a guy trying to strange his brother, Nelson uses the right editor for his quasi-philosophic comedy-drama which Roberto Schaefer films in Shreveport to stand in for Tulsa and Little Dixie, OK.
"Leaves of Grass" stars Edward Norton in two roles, one as Bill Kincaid, a beloved philosophy professor at Brown University, the other as Brady Kincaid, a screw-up pot grower in the sticks of Oklahoma who owes serious money to a drug kingpin. The best scenes are in the opening minutes, of special value if you're a student of philosophy or one who aspired to gain happiness through wisdom. Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is delivering a lecture in front of a board loaded with chalk, bringing in a bevy of philosophers to make his points, but the women in the class are misty-eyed and smiling not because they love Socrates but because they're all in love with Bill-or so says the receptionist.
When Bill hears that his estranged Oklahoma brother Brady (Edward Norton) has been murdered with a crossbow, he flies south to Little Dixie, Oklahoma, to find his brother very much alive, claiming that he wants his bro to be with him at his upcoming wedding to a pregnant Colleen (Melanie Lynskey). That's not true either: Brady has more nefarious plans for the well-dressed, handsome professor, one which involves drug lord Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss) in an adventure that will lead Bill out of academe, into the real world, to engage in a romance with poet and high-school English teacher, Janet (Keri Russell) and, among others, a Manhattan orthodondist moving his practice south, Ken Feinman (Joseph Pais). Nor did Bill plan until now ever to see his eccentric mom, Daisy (Susan Sarandon), who lives in a nursing home for reasons not entirely logical.
Light touches lead to serious stuff going down, bodies sprawled out everywhere, all involving two stereotypically drawn members of Tulsa's small Jewish community, officials you don't want to run into like Big Joe Sharpe (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and one good guy resembling a refugee from the sixties, Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson).
It may have cost a number of bodies to make the point that ultimately you want to reconcile with the estranged people you grew up with, to gain release from guilt feelings, to find redemption as though you might be toying with some of the wise ideas we got from classical civilization. Much of the mayhem feels forced rather than organic. Colorful cast notwithstanding, the promise of the picture, which could be the illustrations of life in all its messy dimensions, disappoints. Nonetheless watching two-time Oscar-nominated Edward Norton ply his talents in seeking his first Academy win makes attending the film worthwhile.
Rated R. 104 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online