Underrated: Leaves of Grass (2009)

I see a pattern with these posters. They’re all lame.
     Tim Blake Nelson wrote Leaves of Grass with Edward Norton in mind for the lead. If Norton had turned down the script, Nelson would not have pursued the project any further. That’s an interesting fact to ponder when watching Nelson’s hilarious, tragic, violent, and mystifying film. Not because of Norton’s performance(s), which is(are) exceptional by the way, but because of the sheer ambition that fills every facet of this film.
     Describing the plot is sort of a moot point, not because there is no plot, but because several plots are happening at the same time. I guess you could say that the film, at its most basic level, is a story about identical twins who are nothing alike. Not only are they nothing alike, but they are residing on two polar extremes of American society (Brady is a drug-dealing redneck in Oklahoma, while Bill is a Classical Philosophy professor at Brown). Norton plays both brothers with an almost supernatural confidence. Brady’s accent is thick and almost indecipherable and Bill’s voice has a certain quality that forces people to listen to his eloquent, brilliant thoughts.
     So of course the estranged brothers have to meet. It has been 12 years since Bill has left town, and his mother (played by Susan Sarandon) has put herself into a rest home prematurely.
     I won’t spoil anything, so I’ll just say that plot happens and before you know it the brothers are sharing the frame like a couple of Lohans.
    A man as well-connected (he has been a character actor in nearly 50 films) as Nelson has no trouble finding excellent actors to play small parts in his film. Even Richard Dreyfuss makes an appearance as a drug baron (go figure). Nelson has made a film with the “not really twins” special effect used famously in The Social Network with a fraction of that film’s budget.
Just in case you were wondering, Tim Blake Nelson is that guy from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
     Not only that, but he has filled this movie to the brim with ideas. We see a lecture from Norton’s Bill Kincaid that is expertly delivered and beautifully written juxtaposed with a group of guys discussing moonshine at a Waffle House; we see an orthodontist screaming for his children’s “crooked teethed friends” to get braces “so the family won’t fold into an empty burrito”; we see many, many brutal murders involving weapons ranging from pistols, shotguns, and crossbows.
     The most interesting part of this film, to me, is that both brothers are brilliant. The redneck, hick brother who sells marijuana is every bit as brilliant as the Ivy League professor who can sight translate Latin. The movie does not bash the viewer’s head in with the fact that these brother’s are geniuses. In fact, it doesn’t really say much of anything. Nelson’s dialogue is so good that we don’t need any exposition; the dialogue is so well-written that we just know these characters.
      Many people compare this film to the Coen Brother’s work, and I guess that comparison makes sense. Especially since Nelson appeared in one of their films. But, in a way, I feel like that’s a dismissal of what Nelson is doing with this movie. This is not an actor who worked with the Coens and tried to deliver a similar package, this is a very unique and interesting voice that I’m definitely going to be looking forward to hearing for a long time.
     It’s sad that this film didn’t get hardly any recognition, because it is a very satisfying and interesting experience watching this movie.
    And just so you know, it does mention Whitman.

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  • I just watched the trailer for this movie and, like you say, I'm amazed it didn't get more recognition. It looks great. I'll have to stop by the trusty family video.