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Leaves of Grass
A peculiar hybrid of elegant character study, domestic drama, drug comedy and gritty action thriller, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass is one strange high. Leave it to Nelson, whose filmography is riddled with fascinating projects of his own creation (if you've never seen Eye of God or The Grey Zone, seek them out immediately) and of others' (most likely know Nelson from his sharp work in Syriana, The Incredible Hulk, O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Minority Report). He's a smart, audacious filmmaker who infuses his own work with a high-minded literary streak belying his education at Brown.
Leaves of Grass is no different. Its premise -- twin brothers, one a scholar, one a pot-addled layabout, must mend their strained relationship in order to fend off a vicious drug lord -- is the stuff of innumerable mindless action-comedies. But what Nelson does here is something that approaches this well-worn set-up from a unique angle.
For starters, the twins are played by one actor: Edward Norton, who gamely gives each brother -- Bill and Brady Kincaid -- a distinct personality and, what's more, maintains each character's integrity throughout the film (that is to say, you're never in doubt as to which Kincaid is on screen). There's also a cultured thread winding its way through the narrative; Bill, who lives and works in Rhode Island as a philosophy professor, yearns to break free from what he perceives as the simpler, slower way of life in his home state of Oklahoma (the film didn't shoot in the Sooner State; tax incentives drew the production east, to Louisiana). Over the course of the film, he comes to learn that "slow" does not always equate to "dumb."
The cast is studded with stars -- aside from Norton, Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell and Richard Dreyfuss turn up with varying degrees of success; musician turned budding actor Steve Earle pops up too -- and the plot mostly hums pleasantly along, weaving in a low-key romantic subplot involving Russell and Norton's more clean-cut twin. Nelson (who also acts, as Brady Kincaid's dopey sidekick) overplays his hand with the brutally violent finale that strives too hard to put a bloody exclamation point on the darkly comic shenanigans of the previous few reels.
But, as quirky indie flicks go, Leaves of Grass offers a fairly pleasant buzz. Nelson adroitly marshals his able cast, led by Norton's terrific dual performance -- although Dreyfuss's accent is grating and horrible; has he ever spent time in Tulsa? -- and a story that doesn't always go quite where you expect. The hiccups, mainly confined to the gory climax, aren't enough to ruin the film and its involving, richly drawn world.The DVD
Leaves of Grass arrives on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film appears to have been shot digitally -- those slightly smeary nighttime scenes will give you away every time -- but overall, the image stays crisp and clear, with only a few fleeting instances of harshness or that overly sharpened appearance digitally filmed productions can suffer from.The Audio:
The English, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has a few moments to shine -- notably the climactic face-off -- but mostly, it conveys the oh-so-twangy dialogue, the bubbling pipes and bongs and the Louisiana-standing-in-for-Oklahoma natural sound. Everything is heard free from distortion or drop-out; nothing much to complain about here. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also included.The Extras:
Given its sure-to-be-cult status, Leaves of Grass doesn't boast an extraordinary amount of supplemental material, but what's here is worth sifting through for fans of the film. Nelson, Norton and producer William Migliori sit down for a commentary that wastes little time diving into the script's literary underpinnings, as well as some behind-the-scenes tidbits and insight into the deft visual effects at the center of the film. Norton, moreso than his cohorts, seems to be having a total ball. An 11 minute, 37 second making-of featurette (presented in anamorphic widescreen) gives a quick overview of the film's shoot, with the theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) closing out the disc.Final Thoughts:
A peculiar hybrid of elegant character study, domestic drama, drug comedy and gritty action thriller, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass is one strange high. Leave it to Nelson, whose filmography is riddled with fascinating projects of his own creation and of others'. He's a smart, audacious filmmaker who infuses his own work with a high-minded literary streak belying his education at Brown. But, as quirky indie flicks go, Leaves of Grass offers a fairly pleasant buzz. Nelson adroitly marshals his able cast, led by Norton's terrific dual performance, and a story that doesn't always go quite where you expect. The hiccups, mainly confined to the gory climax, aren't enough to ruin the film and its involving, richly drawn world. Recommended.