Leaves of Grass has a lot of autobiography from its writer/director Tim Blake Nelson. Not so much in Ed Norton's twin Kincaid brothers, the marijuana dealing, or the violence, but in many of the little details contained in this wacky ride through my beloved home state. Nelson (probably most famous as Delmar from the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is one of the finest character actors around, stealing scenes in all kinds of movies from big budget to tiny independents. Although from humble Tulsa beginnings, Nelson is an Ivy League (Brown University) educated Classics major, a Julliard graduate, an accomplished playwright, and an experienced filmmaker, Leaves of Grass marking his 4th major work as director. About half of that description applies to Bill, one of the twin brothers played by Ed Norton (who also serves as a producer on the film).
Bill is Professor of Classical Philosophy at Brown, a hot young name in academia being courted by Harvard to start up his own program there. The movie opens with a great monologue by Bill dealing with the teaching of the ancient Greeks, and it's a testament to Nelson's faith in his script that he doesn't turn it into simply a montage of Bill lecturing to students, but a fully formed monologue, much of which foreshadows the intellectual themes of the rest of the movie. Soon after, we meet Brady, a genius pot grower in the Southeastern Oklahoma town of Idabel. He and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) are running into problems with a Tulsa based Jewish drug kingpin (deliciously played by Richard Dreyfuss) who wants payback, Brady and Bill's hippie mom (Susan Sarandon) who's checked herself into a retirement home, and with Brady's pregnant girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) who wants Brady to stop selling, stop growing, and stop smoking his beloved mary jane.
Blackly comedic hijinks ensue as everybody crosses paths and we get faked deaths, real deaths, obvious comedy, subtle comedy, uncomfortable comedy (thanks to Josh Pais's unbelievably great performance), philosophical discussions on poetry and the existence of God. Brady has an interesting theory about why he does believe in a higher power, I would've never thought about explaining God's possible existence with parallel lines, but it makes a lot of sense when Nelson gives his characters the time to talk about things and ideas the way that few movies ever do. It's intoxicating to find a movie that allows the ridiculousness of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle angrily shooting a crossbow (with his bluetooth headset in his ear) to exist in the same realm with Keri Russell reciting Whitman while she guts a catfish. It's a wonderful feeling, even if Nelson doesn't quite have the directorial flair to be able to pull it off without a hitch. There aren't many problems with the movie, but maybe those things can't go flawlessly into a movie in the first place. I'm still really glad he tried.
Now, I've not been a huge fan of Edward Norton over the years. I was never one of the people praising his work to the heavens and declaring him the best actor of his generation. I think he's a solid actor whose performances tend to all feel the same to me. Not, however, in Leaves of Grass. Bill is intelligent and logical, but increasingly reaching the end of his rope, often due to Brady. And Brady is a brilliant mind who doesn't always put his smarts to use in a constructive manner. Although I thought at first the "hick" accent that Norton uses for Brady was too over-the-top, either he or I grew into it, and I was okay with it. Norton creates these two characters with a wonderfully subtle bag of tricks, and the illusion of the twins is handled wonderfully by Nelson and his bag of directorial tricks. I knew, of course, that Norton wasn't acting opposite himself, Nelson made pains to include many shots of Bill and Brady together, and Norton's timing and amazing ability to play off of himself seals the deal so that we never don't believe that we're watching two brothers.
So, in short, Leaves of Grass is a masterwork by a proud Okie. It contains too many wonderful things to let the small stuff bother me, most notably brilliant performances by Ed Norton (the best work he's done, I think). It's certainly one of my favorite movies of recent times.