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DVD Review: Uneven ‘Leaves of Grass’ Delves Into High-Minded Farce

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CHICAGO – As special effects technology continues to become more advanced, filmmakers have found increasingly convincing ways of allowing actors to give dual performances in the same movie, and often in the same frame. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, from the exquisite trick photography in “Moon” to the seamless digital creation of the Winklevi in “The Social Network.”

Yet as flawless as the technology may be, the success of the performance still hinges on the level of authentic chemistry an actor can generate between two interacting personas. Nicholas Cage pulled off this feat brilliantly in “Adaptation,” and now Edward Norton rises to the challenge in Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass,” a weirdly uneven mixture of “Adaptation” and “Pineapple Express.” Like Cage, Norton is given the task of playing identical twins whose personalities couldn’t be more different. It’s a splendid showcase role, enabling Norton to deliver his most inventive work in years, and his performance is the only wholly successful thing about this wildly ambitious, thoroughly entertaining mess.

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 3.5/5.0
DVD Rating: 3.5/5.0

The film’s first half-hour seems to be directing the plot toward a predictable destination, as it sets up the mismatched comic duo of Bill Kincaid (Norton), an uptight classics professor, and his brother Brady (also Norton), an Oklahoma pothead. Bill has spent his adult life advancing in his career, while extricating himself from his family, and who can blame him? His brother is the type of hopeless screw-up who leaves a trail of destruction everywhere he goes. Now faced with a loving girlfriend and a baby on the way, Brady must pull off an elaborate scheme to end business deals with a series of redneck drug dealers. The scheme, of course, involves his brother, and soon Bill reluctantly finds himself homeward bound, where he’ll learn the true meaning of a balanced life under the most chaotic of circumstances. Of course, the film is anything but balanced. It lurches uneasily between scathing dark comedy and tender drama, intellectual insight and pothead farce, heightened satire and gritty violence. While Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” found a masterful way of melding these diverse elements into a cohesive whole, “Leaves of Grass” often plays like a series of jarringly juxtaposed sketches, some more successful than others.

Edward Norton in Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass.
Edward Norton in Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass.
Photo credit: First Look Studios

One of the most memorable sketches involves Ken Feinman (Josh Pais), a nosy orthodontist who surely must be the unluckiest Jewish character since Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man.” Pais is a natural born scene stealer, nailing the brutally comedic elements in his character’s tragic predicament. Yet his subplot seems to exist in an entirely separate film from the sweetly observed romance that blooms between Bill and Janet (a radiant Keri Russell), or the gory showdown that erupts between Brady and Pug (Richard Dreyfuss), a foul-mouthed dope dealer. Pug is the latest in a series of aggressively unpleasant roles for Dreyfuss that could be aptly described as “Mr. Hyde’s Opus.” Perhaps Dreyfuss is relishing the opportunity to repeatedly play against type, or perhaps he’s still exorcising all the pent-up rage he felt toward Marsha Mason in “The Goodbye Girl.” Either way, Dreyfuss’s unfunny cameo is the first of several sequences that racket up the film’s body count while decreasing its fun factor. In some ways, the film is as uneven as the directorial career of Nelson, who previously helmed the problematic “O” and the superb “Grey Zone.” Here, Nelson ultimately bites off far more than he can digest, which may leave many viewers with a stomachache, yet it’s difficult to not be grateful for such a filling meal.

Leaves of Grass was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 12, 2010.
Leaves of Grass was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 12, 2010.
Photo credit: First Look Studios

“Leaves of Grass” is presented in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and includes a brief making-of featuette where Nelson reveals that the twins’ story was loosely based on his relationship with an older brother who had long hair and an affection for illegal substances. Norton says that he approached the challenge of playing against himself by avoiding to let go of the impulses he would normally have when working with another actor. An amused Russell recalls her experience of reciting Walt Whitman to Norton while gutting a catfish during her first day of shooting. The theatrical trailer clearly portrays the film as more of a straightforward comedy, which is perhaps the easiest way to market such a bizarre picture.

What truly enhances this disc is the pleasurable commentary by Norton, Nelson and producer Bill Migliore. Norton says that people who actually bother investing in commentaries are always interested in the little details, and he makes sure to highlight a bundle, from repeated references to the great singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt (chosen as Brady’s spiritual influence), to throwaway comic nuances (in one crucial moment, Bill grabs a Plato book to ward off sexual advances). He also proves that the film’s similarities to “Pineapple Express” aren’t merely of a thematic or tonal nature; the plants in Brady’s lab were the exact same ones used in “Express.” As for Brady’s appearance, Norton based him off of a Tom Petty album cover from 1977. The commentary also includes a rich dissection of the film’s intellectual subtext, as Nelson discusses how both brothers are Neoclassicists at heart, and that Brady is indeed the brighter of the two siblings. The director also makes sure to acknowledge each member of the ensemble, including Pais, who made it mightily difficult for Norton to maintain a straight face. Norton likens his initial encounter with Pais to the plane scene in which he met Tyler Durden in “Fight Club.” “Whereas Durden is the man you want to be,” the commentators quip, “Pais is the guy you’re afraid you’ll become.”

‘Leaves of Grass’ is released by First Look Studios and stars Edward Norton, Tim Blake Nelson, Keri Russell, Josh Pais, Susan Sarandon, Melanie Lynskey and Richard Dreyfuss. It was written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. It was released on Oct. 12th, 2010. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

Anonymous's picture

I like this DVD!

I like this DVD!so much.!!:]

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