By Don Simpson | September 21, 2010
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Writer: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Melanie Lynskey, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson
Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) escaped Little Dixie, Oklahoma several years ago and has never looked back. Having completely shed the accent of his roots, Bill currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island where he is a published author and Classics professor at Brown University (Harvard is primed to offer him a chance to open his own law and philosophy hybrid department).
Leaves of Grass opens as Bill lectures to his class on the Socratic ideals of self-discipline and control (and the dangerous illusion of thinking you have succeeded in abiding by this philosophy).This scene is not merely to show the audience that Bill is a professor, but to establish the philosophical tone. (Later, a young female student throws herself at Bill – his self-restraint would make Socrates proud.)
Meanwhile, back in Little Dixie, Bill’s identical twin brother Brady (Edward Norton) – the local king of hydroponically-grown marijuana – finds himself in a real pickle of a situation. Brady owes money to Oklahoma’s drug kingpin and richest Jew (and charitable benefactor), Tug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Tug and his lackies are determined to drag Brady into the more lucrative business of hard drugs so that Brady can pay Tug off quicker. Brady refuses and trouble ensues…
Bill receives a telephone call informing him that Brady is dead. Death of a family member being the only thing that would bring Bill back to Little Dixie, he flies home. Bill is met at the airport by his Brady’s best friend Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson) in his El Camino (gun rack included).
It turns out that Brady is just as brilliant as Bill; he just uses his intelligence differently and abides by a different philosophy of life. (Brady’s state-of-the-art hydroponics laboratory blows Bill’s mind.) Brady is also much craftier than Bill – he cleverly lures Bill back to Little Dixie to provide a physical alibi in case anything goes awry with his meeting with Tug in Tulsa. As an added bonus, the alibi mandates that Bill visit their pothead mother (Susan Sarandon) who – though many years younger than the other inhabitants – lives in an old folks’ home. (Bill has not seen his mother in over 12 years.) When it comes down to it, life is unpredictable and uncontrollable no matter how well versed you are in the classic philosophers.
Nelson’s eccentric humor and farcical approach to violence owes significant debt to Joel and Ethan Coen, especially in his mining of regional quirks and Jewish stereotypes for laughs. The audience probably would not expect for a family dramedy about a marijuana grower in rural Oklahoma to include Jews (in minor yet influential roles); but not only are we given Tug, there is also Ken (Josh Pais) the orthodontist and Rabbi Zimmerman (Maggie Siff).
It is said that Edward Norton has never acted in a film that he did not respect and it is Norton that makes Leaves of Grass succeed. He flawlessly embodies the two polar opposite roles (which never seems like a gimmick) in appearance, movement and speech, functioning as both an elite urban intellectual and a good ol’ boy stoner sometimes seemingly simultaneously. Norton (and Nelson’s writing) takes both characters equally seriously and does not condescend. The twins, equally brilliant, view the world through a lens of philosophy and deal with matters intellectually. One obvious message within Leaves of Grass is to never judge a book by its cover (or its Southern “hick” accent – which does not equate to lack of intelligence.)
Tim Blake Nelson’s (Eye of God, O, The Grey Zone) philosophically introspective Leaves of Grass is a sharp and witty comedy, but it is also a richly textured family reconciliation drama that focuses on the overcoming of differing worldviews and philosophies. Additionally, in revealing the senseless violence associated with the illegal drug trade as well as providing relatively positive portrayals of “stoners,” Leaves of Grass provides strong logic for the legalization of marijuana. To quote Rabbi Zimmerman: “The world is broken and our duty is to try to fix it”; maybe the first step should be the decriminalization of marijuana?