Leaves of Grass
Time Out New York Project: Issue #757, April 1–7, 2010
Dir. Tim Blake Nelson. 2009. R. 105mins. Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss.
A dumb comedy out to prove its genre-defying smarts — the title is both an onscreen-supported reference to Walt Whitman and a wacky-tobaccy allusion — Leaves of Grass is a mostly mirthless affair; not even the sight of Edward Norton portraying twins tickles as it should. Whether he’s expounding on Socrates as urbane East Coast classics professor Bill Kincaid or doing Cletus-the-slack-jawed-yokel shtick as his pot-growing Oklahoman bro, Brady, it’s clear that Norton is playing tics as opposed to creating people. His double-act burlesque is groundless.
Belly laughs might not be what writer-director Tim Blake Nelson is after, of course. Sprinkled in with the regional comic shenanigans (the film is mostly set in and around Tulsa) are 15 other movies — a drug thriller, a love story and a family drama among them. The best of these features Keri Russell as the ladylove Bill takes up with after making an impromptu journey west for his brother’s supposed funeral. She’s one smart cookie, as adept at reciting poetry as she is at noodling catfish, and Norton and Russell build up a beguiling head of romantic steam that is blessedly free of actorly affectation.
The rest, though…hoo-boy pardners! It would be overly polite to call this a pale shadow of the tone-shifting Coen brothers farces from which Nelson — who costarred in O Brother, Where Art Thou? — is taking his cues. The (admittedly quotable) low point comes when Brady confronts a Jewish drug lord (Dreyfuss) who spouts off about money hoarding and cocksucking before being sanguinely dispatched. From there, this pineapple express derails with one desperate, attention-grabbing burst of violence after another (redneck-chic musician Steve Earle wielding a crossbow!). It’s a real downer.—Keith Uhlich