Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass is an honest-to-God American original; I’ve never seen a film quite like it, with the possible exception of some of the Coen Brothers’ more far-out pictures. This is not to say that everything in it works—some of the story threads are half-baked, and the tone is all over the place. But have to admire its gumption; they’re going for something off-the-wall and unexpected here, and the resulting product more than fills the bill.Edward Norton pulls double duty, playing twin brothers from Oklahoma whose lives have taken vastly different turns. Bill, long estranged from his family, is a professor in classical language at Brown and up for a lucrative position at Harvard. Back home, his brother Brady is just about the smartest pot grower around, but in debt up to his neck to the powerful Jewish kingpin Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). When Bill gets word that Brady’s been killed in a drug deal gone bad, he hurries back home, only to find that… well, it’s a little more complicated than all that.
Nelson, best known for his character turns in front of the camera in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Syriana, is a filmmaker of considerable skill (his quiet, powerful Eye of God is one of the best movies you’ve never seen). Leaves of Grass, with its hints of pot comedy and goofy characterizations—particularly the down-home half of Norton’s double act, complete with scruffy facial hair and a prize mullet—is more broadly comic than we might expect from his previous filmography (which also includes such dour titles as O and The Grey Zone). It has a completely different tone and mood than the fragile Eye of God, but it shares that picture’s thick sense of atmosphere; it’s a rare film that genuinely inhabits its locations. (I’m from Kansas and spent considerable time in Oklahoma in my youth; I know that of which I speak.)
He also lucks out by scoring a first-rate cast, from top to bottom. Norton is just plain wonderful; both of his performances are thought-out and worked-through, but what’s more than that, he looks to be having a great time acting (for the first time in a while). Nelson appears as Brady’s best buddy Bolger, adding comic relief and unexpected pathos. Melanie Lynskey (on a hot streak following top-notch turns in The Informant! and Away We Go) is flat-out terrific; seriously, is there nothing this actor can’t do? Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon impress in small but key roles, while Keri Russell does earthy spunk well (though her romance with Bill comes off as a bit of an afterthought). Even the minor roles are filled by notable character actors like Pruitt Taylor Vince and Steve Earle.
Nelson’s screenplay is densely plotted but nimble; it lays out with the clean efficiency of an Elmore Leonard novel, and zips right by in a flash. The tone shifts are whip-fast, from low comedy to hard brutality to hearty drama, but it never feels forced or uneven; Nelson’s sure directorial hand and crisp pace never waver, clear through to its peculiar but perfect ending.
There’s a likeable strangeness to Leaves of Grass, and it is without question entertaining. But it is, indeed, a tough film to whole-heartedly recommend; it’s so off the wall and so oddly constructed, I can imagine large swaths of audiences won’t engage with it at all. But some moviegoers like their pictures to swing a little more wildly, and don’t mind if not every gamble pays off. If you’re one of those moviegoers, it’s worth seeking out.