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Movie Review: Norton and Nelson combine to create “Grass”

Photo credit: Class 5 Films
Photo credit: Class 5 Films

If the name “Leaves of Grass” sounds familiar to you, it’s because it should, “Leaves of Grass” also happens to be the name of Walt Whitman’s famous poetic chronicle of American culture.  Although this coincidence is certainly intentional on the part of writer, director, and actor, Tim Blake Nelson, the film can only be described as a very loose allegory of Whitman’s original work.  The film’s plot and the book’s poetry do have some fleeting similarities, but they end there.

 Instead, Nelson chooses to shift the focus of the film to one of the many unanswerable questions exploring the nature of human existence: what does it truly mean to be happy?  Famed actor Edward Norton is left to ponder this question, in not one, but two lead roles.  In the case of “Leaves of Grass,” these two lead characters happen to be identical twin brothers, one an esteemed philosophy professor at prestigious Brown University, the other a modest marijuana grower from rural Oklahoma.

 The film starts out by opening on a rather intriguing lecture given by the professor, Bill Kincaid, on Sophocles, which, oddly enough, more than does its job in the setting the reflective literary tone of the entire film.  Shortly after having given this lecture, Bill receives a phone call out of the blue from his brother’s friend, simply named Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), explaining the tragic news that his brother, Brady Kincaid, has suddenly died in a fatal “crossbow accident.” 

Forced to go back to his small hometown in Oklahoma for his brother’s supposed funeral, Bill quickly finds out that what he’s originally came home for is really a complete myth, orchestrated by his brother to force him home to help out with a rather insane plot involving his brother and a crime kingpin whom he owes money to.

Without giving too much more away, what follows is a wild and oddly emotional ride that involves everything from a homicidal orthodontist to hundreds of pounds of the finest hydroponically grown pot Oklahoma has ever known.  The film quotes numerous literary works, including the novel it’s named after, and uses them quite effectively to convey its constantly shifting theme of the never-ending search for true happiness. 

 The only reason that these deep moments of reflection in the film manage to stand out is due in large part to the rural setting of the film and the great acting delivered by Edward Norton.  Even in the most unexpected people, a marijuana grower, and under the most unusual of circumstances,  Norton and many of his supporting actors (including the likes Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Keri Russell) help to deliver great performances that help the viewer contemplate these larger questions of life in a much different light.

While most may not consider fishing for catfish in a mosquito infested swamp an adequate location to discuss the deeper meaning of life and Walt Whitman’s classic works, or the front seat of a beat-up El Camino an appropriate place to ponder the existence of god, the performances given in the film are so good all around that these settings easily end up seeming a natural place for such deep topics.

The stark contrasts in the film, namely the obvious differences between both brothers, also help the theme of the work to take on a multi-dimensional look by analyzing situations from a myriad of angles.  Because of this, and largely due to the great acting of Norton, the transitions between these different characters, and thusly different points of view, are easily smoothed-out and overlooked by the viewer.

Despite the great performances delivered throughout the film, the uneven pacing and the slightly confusing tonal shifts in the film’s plot cause it to be less than perfect.  In one scene two characters, a mother and son for example, might be having a deeply emotional conversation, and less than a moment later a redneck and a drug dealer are duking it out in a bloody shootout.  If the film were more consistent in its tone, and maintained it throughout, the film could have ultimately been much better. 

These jerky transitions cause it to become not only confusing in parts, but also take away from the deeper meaning in the film.  The addition of many unneeded action sequences doesn’t help either.  Rather than being a slow-moving, perceptive film, the film is peppered in random places with unnecessary bits of vulgarity, if you will.

Thankfully, the film’s redeeming qualities due in large part to Norton’s and the rest of the cast’s amazing acting help to outshine the film’s inconsistencies. 

7/10 – Worth a Rent

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