In the next five weeks, two of Edward Norton’s new films, Leaves of Grass and Stone, go straight to DVD in the U.K., following an incredibly restricted theatrical run and a massive box office underperformance in the U.S. respectively. While this certainly is not a good sign for any actor’s career, Leaves of Grass, which demands of Norton an impressive act of duality, certainly deserves better than a meager DVD treatment, especially with all the inferior tosh getting theatrical releases these days…
Celebrated Ivy League philosophy professor Bill Kincaid (Norton) receives a startling phone call one day, informing him that his twin brother Brady (also Norton, natch) has been killed. Returning to his backward hometown in Oklahoma, he finds his sibling – a slow-talkin’, long-haired redneck version of himself – to be alive and well, and Brady has in fact lured Bill home in order to get his help in doing away with a local drug dealer, Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). As the scheme becomes more and more complicated, the upbringing that Bill has systemically eschewed – for he now has short hair and has affected his own, more “acceptable” accent – comes back to haunt him.
Sure, the setup is a tad too long – there are just too many separate scenes of the twins living their lives before it gets to the point – but this is the Ed Norton show through and through. Naturally, the more transformative of the two roles – the twin brother pot dealer who purports to have a higher IQ than his revered scholar brother – is the more impressive, allowing Norton to flaunt his comic side while also delivering a turn that feels genuinely convincing despite – perhaps even because of – its ridiculousness.
Director Tim Blake Nelson has also roped in a more than capable supporting cast to help out; Susan Sarandon is a hoot as the twins’ down-to-earth mother and the narrative’s emotional lynchpin, while Keri Russell is an able love interest, representing both Bill’s potential for happiness and his own personal failures, for she has managed to balance her intellect with not comprimising who she is. Richard Dreyfuss also plays the big bad with welcome relish.
The outlandish crime premise is undeniably contrived – ultimately requiring Bill to impersonate his brother when things go South – but it is but wrapped inside a warm-hearted homecoming story, which has a certain quicky charm to it (especially when Bill has to revert to his southern drawl). Fairly routine mistaken identity fare though it might be on the surface, the fun really lies in Norton being pitted off against himself; the pompous intellectual vs. the world’s smartest drug dealer.
Naturally, the comedy flows mostly inward, a mockery more of a smart guy’s apparently pointful academic pursuits juxtaposed with his brother’s hedonistic yet personally rewarding lifestyle. The prototypical smarty pants here is too buttoned-down to be happy, while the “rednecks” seem contented in bettering themselves – be it dubiously through drug use – without sacrificing where they come from and who they are because of it.
There is a little more here than just the comic gimmicry of a double act; Leaves of Grass is a wordy, surprisingly literate film, keen to make metaphors of Bill’s life as his overly stratified lifestyle slowly begins to crumble, dissecting it in the clinical terms that an English professor would a poem. A showdown between Bill and his long-estranged mother is especially good, and the inept standoff that closes everything out demonstrates it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite the spectre of death looming surprisingly close in the final passages.
Essentially Deliverance cross-bred with A History of Violence (but funnier and less rapey), Leaves of Grass is a peculiar rural yarn and a sweet, assured examination of lost innocence and brotherhood that succeeds largely because of Norton’s multi-faceted performance, even if it naturally lacks the gravitas of his other work on brotherhood, American History X. While the film itself overextends by about 10 minutes, lessening the emotional impact with some rushed action, this is certainly a cut above the rest as far as straight-to-video fare usually goes.
With a mere DVD release to go by – for the Blu Ray is curiously only available overseas – the film won’t set your HDTV ablaze, but the rustic flavour of its rural locale nevertheless looks enticing, and frankly, it’s difficult to imagine that the HD treatment would really grant the film much more heft anyway.
Aurally, complaints are much the same; though the soundtrack is fairly minimalist, it sounds reliably solid in Dolby 5.1, even if, again, it’s fairly resigned and unassuming in its own right.
“A Tale of Two Brothers” – a 12-minute featurette with the primary function of providing a fairly pointless talking head plot summary and character analysis, intercut with overly lengthy clips of the film, which you’ve probably just watched. A brief discussion about the different cinematography used for the urban and rural scenes is faintly interesting, but the real wizardry – of how Norton was so convincingly able to play two brothers on-screen at the same time – is barely even mentioned.
Leaves of Grass is available on DVD now.