Leaves of Grass (2009) is one of those quirky juxtaposed jumbles that actually manages to be funny, tragic, philosophical, and charming at the same time. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson pulls off what is clearly a labour of love with a sensibility all his own.
The Ivy League professor Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) goes home to Little Dixie, Oklahoma after having been informed that his twin brother Brady (Edward Norton) has been killed. It’s obvious that Bill really isn’t all that keen on the idea. He has worked hard at distancing himself from his humble beginnings and his complicated family and is on his way to a successful career with an offer to teach philosophy at Harvard. As it turns out, Brady has gotten himself into trouble with a rival drug dealer. The twins Bill and Brady have chosen very different paths in life, as you might deduce from that alone.
Things get more involved from there on out. Bill and Brady’s mother, Daisy Kincaid, played by the lovely and talented Susan Sarandon, has checked herself into an old folks’ home, despite being far too young to go that route. It’s also obvious that Brady’s interest in perfecting his method for growing top quality weed (yes, that is the reference to grass here) has been inspired by his hippie mother. Brady’s best friend Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson) meets Bill at the airport and drives him back to Bill’s place via a local store where they get into an altercation with two local thugs. It’s not until they arrive at Brady’s place that Brady actually makes an appearance and it turns out that the rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Brady needs Bill to guarantee that he has a solid alibi when he goes to confront the rival dealer Rug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss).
The main crux of the story is all about home and family, and it is in those moments that the piece really shines, like with the beautifully played scene between Daisy and Bill where you get to see what it was that drove Bill away from home in the first place. Underpinning it all there is a deeply philosophical strain, something that shows the blatant intelligence of the characters as well as the writing. The love interest for Bill is a local teacher/poet Janet (Keri Russell) who quotes Whitman while gutting a catfish.
There’s a charming incongruity there, just as there is in the scene between Bolger and Brady where they discuss the existence of God, and Brady makes an analogy between the existence of a god and the concept of parallel lines that just run on and never touch. “And man can’t create true parallel. It’s just more of a concept… Well that concept, that perfection, we know it exists and we think about it, but we can’t ever get there ourselves. I think that right there is God.” Brady tells his pothead best friend whom he met in prison. It’s that kind of contrast that colours the whole movie.
There’s a clear acting challenge to playing your own twin, and even if it is an old device and it has been done before, it takes an extreme awareness just with little things like making it seem like you are actually interacting with your other, and Norton makes very intelligent choices throughout with things like body language and quirks of behaviour that actually works well enough that the viewer isn’t constantly reminded of the technical side of how this is done, rather than letting the action unfold. There are enough similarities between the characters that you get reminded of their sameness as well as their difference, most notably in the obvious intelligence of them both.
There’s a dark undercurrent in the narrative, drugs and violence and a dysfunctional family dynamic, but all that serves a purpose and there’s deadpan humour to so much of the dialogue which flaunts an interest in philosophy and rhetoric that makes it difficult to pigeon-hole. I, for one, happen to like that. I like that there is pathos to the humour, a darkness underneath that gives contrast to the lighter things. There is, quite simply, a lot going on, and there is a body count worthy of a gangster movie and just desserts to deserving parties. The end result is something that feels more like a play in its aesthetic. It’s quirky and morally dubious, well acted and unpredictable in a good way. That’s more than enough for me.