Thursday, June 9, 2011

Leaves of Grass

I like Edward Norton as an actor, but I haven't really noticed him in movies over the past few years.  Looking at his filmography, I have to go back to 2003's The Italian Job for a movie of his that I actually liked, and he's not even very good in it.  I stumbled across Leaves of Grass more or less by accident, and the cover gave me pause; Edward Norton was pulling an Eddie Murphy and acting against himself in a comedy?  Okay, I'm intrigued.
Sadly, neither of these men are Tyler Durden.

In case you are wondering, this movie takes its title from a book of poems by Walt Whitman.  Whitman published the collection when he was thirty-six, but he continued to revise and edit it until he died at age seventy-one.  While that history doesn't really have much to do with the movie (or does it?), I've always found that interesting.
OCP: obsessive-compulsive poet

The film focuses on the Kincaid brothers, Bill (Edward Norton) and Brady (Edward Norton).  Bill is a quiet professor of classical philosophy, who spends his time critiquing the critiques other professors have made about classical philosophers.  Brady is a redneck drug dealer with enough scientific smarts to design and build his own state-of-the-art hydroponic marijuana warehouse.  Brady finds himself in a bit of a pickle when the local drug kingpin, Pug (Richard Dreyfuss), starts to breathe down his neck; Pug put up the money for the pot lab and wants either his investment repaid or for Brady to start dealing hard drugs.  Brady and his dim-witted friend, Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson, who also directed the movie), come up with a plan, but it requires Bill to come home for a visit.  That's a problem, because Bill hasn't returned --- or even returned phone calls or letters --- since he left to go to college.  How would you get your estranged twin brother to return home after twenty-odd years?  If your answer was "fake your own crossbow-related death," then this movie might not have any surprises for you.  Once he's home in the deep South (which is in Oklahoma?) again, Bill faces his fears and reevaluates his life, and gets entangled in his brother's shenanigans.

One of the difficult choices filmmakers are forced to make when making a comedy is how silly to make it.  Do you go insultingly broad, like the Wayans, or do you go for the 1% chance of a cult hit, like in Napoleon Dynamite?  Or **ugh** do you go just go for predictable stupidity in a romantic comedy?  Writer/director Tim Blake Nelson opts to go the most difficult route, that of the black comedy.  I love black comedies in theory; the idea of cracking jokes at inappropriate times appeals to my inner asshole.  Unfortunately, I don't think Nelson truly succeeds in this attempt.  There are some funny moments and lines of dialogue (I can think of two that involve crossbows), but the humor level is pretty low, unless you count references to pot smoking as knee-slappers.  As a drama, Leaves of Grass doesn't really come together, either.  I thought Nelson directed the funeral scene at the end well enough, but the rest was pretty emotion-free.

On the other hand, I thought the acting was pretty decent.  Edward Norton did a fine job in both roles, but I didn't ever really care for either one.  It was momentarily amusing to see Norton as a redneck, but that novelty wore off quickly.  Neither brother was particularly interesting, either, which made this movie harder to watch.  I enjoyed Tim Blake Nelson as Norton's sidekick; no one can play a well-meaning idiot better than Nelson.  Keri Russell pops up to play a poetry-spouting, catfish-punching local, and she's decent enough.  It was interesting to see Richard Dreyfuss as a villain, and his rant about drug dealers being anti-Semitic was...unusual, I guess.  Susan Sarandon played the mentally fragile mother of the brothers, Melanie Lynskey pretended that she was pregnant, and musician Steve Earle looked really, really ugly.  Nobody gave a bad performance, but many of the characters were unmemorable or just dull.
Which came first, the accent or the facial hair?

I can't say that I enjoyed this movie as either a drama or a comedy, but it has some redeeming value.  The story wasn't confusing and a few of the jokes were funny.  I think the best thing about this movie is that it doesn't assume that people with thick Southern accents are stupid.  As Brady, Edward Norton has a few interesting and intelligent things to say, even if he is saying them with a mullet.  Unfortunately, the script is not strong enough to make the occasional funny bits into a cohesive or interesting whole, despite a solid cast.  I think the biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn't embrace or take advantage of Norton in his dual roles.  You don't make a movie with an actor playing multiple parts unless you're making at least one of those characters into a joke; failing that, you go the Adaptation route and make a genuinely weird movie.  Leaves of Grass does neither, opting for pretty conventional characters, even if they are rednecks.  When I prepared to watch this movie, my only hope was that it would be better than Norton's last dark comedy, Death to Smoochy.  This movie doesn't have the highs and lows of that film, but it disappoints, just the same.

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