REVIEW: Edward Norton's Identical-Twin Shtick Makes for Limp Leaves of Grass
There's something uncanny about Edward Norton conversing with his twinned self on screen. He's an actor whose self-assurance often bleeds into self-regard, as if he were performing for himself while co-stars just happen to be in attendance. As identical brothers Bill and Brady Kincaid in Tim Blake Nelson's atonal American gothic Leaves of Grass, he relays both halves of a dialogue -- old school, invisible split-screen style -- and for once it's an equal fight. He can suck the air out of the room without anyone else getting hurt.
Norton is less ubiquitous now than he was a decade ago, when Oscar nominations for Primal Fear and American History X (which he reportedly re-edited to boost his screen-time) led him to be perfectly cast as the Narrator in Fight Club. As demonstrated by that film, he's best served by roles that play into, rather than against, his Varsity Club appearance and sinus-stuffed, party-favor kazoo voice. Conversely, he's badly served when asked to play goateed tough guys: Fight Club and American History X critique that Charles Atlas pose, while in films like The Score, The Italian Job and even the otherwise excellent 25th Hour, he's allowed to wear his whiskers seriously. Which means that in Leaves of Grass Norton is well typecast as Bill, a classics professor whose geeky romanticism makes smart girls swoon and Ivy League schools write blank checks; and a trailer trash minstrel sight-gag as Brady, his mulleted, costume-bearded Okie pothead brother.
Character-actor Blake Nelson, best known for playing third fiddle to George Clooney and John Turturro in O Brother Where Art Thou?, is heavily under the influence of the Coen Brothers for his fourth directorial feature, a broad/black comedy cum druggy spiritual journey that also serves as a barbed valentine to his Oklahoman homies. When we meet Bill he's teaching Socratic philosophy to a roomful of enrapt undergrads at Brown, before finding himself ardently courted by Harvard. Many years estranged from his backwoods family, he's summoned back west when he learns that his brother has died from a crossbow wound. By the time Bill discovers that Brady is alive, well, and using him as an alibi in a crazy scheme, he's right back where he started. Meanwhile bong-hitting motormouth Brady has a baby on the way and is trying to straighten out. Ready to sell the farm -- actually a greenhouse for high-quality, hydroponic-quality marijuana -- he's shaken down by the same shifty Jewish kingpin (Richard Dreyfuss) who'd lent him seed money to start the business.
Since Bill is practically a stranger in his hometown -- he'd abandoned his past and twang when he fled for college nearly twenty years prior -- he's easily mistaken for his fuck-up brother, which means he's freely punched in the face. He also rediscovers herbal pleasures, reconnects with his hippie burnout mom (somebody please give Susan Sarandon something better to do), who's prematurely installed herself in an old-age home, and falls hard for a bad-ass poetess, Janet (skeletal Keri Russell), whose dance of seduction has her reciting Whitman while noodling and gutting catfish, creek-side. As Bill sheds pretensions and settles back in, Brady continues to impress with homespun intellect and crafty resilience. Tables: turned. But since we're never led to judge Bill's academic life too harshly -- he seems perfectly happy and at home in a classroom -- there's little thrill in watching his boggy descent into the simple life.
After meandering through two acts of broad comedy and canned indie eccentricity, Blake Nelson causes whiplash with a knife-twisting turn to grisly violence. It comes as a real surprise, and serves to keep us off-balance and skittish the rest of the way. Yet what's truly shocking is how shallow and irrelevant the rupture feels. It's a classic Coen Brothers trick, veering from slapstick to grand guignol bloodletting, swiftly shifting tone and genre like levels on a mixing board. But even at their most cool and callous (Burn After Reading, say), the Coens make you feel something -- even if it's just resentment or anger at the men manipulating things from behind the curtain. But Leaves of Grass engenders no such feeling. Are we to cry for characters we'd otherwise been led to mock? The turnabout simply jerks us from one unreality to another. And it's unfair to press the comparison too far, but suffice to say that Blake Nelson doesn't have the visual gifts of his Minnesotan mentors, leaving us undistracted by surface flair and fully focused on his cartoonish characters and ragged, oddly callow script.
Thankfully, as you might expect from a film directed by a career supporting player, there are signs of life at the margins. Josh Pais wrings some laughs out of a desperate, unemployed orthodontist while Maggie Siff, a.k.a. Don Draper's foxy ex-lover Rachel Menken from Mad Men, registers as a thoughtful rabbi wandered in from a more appealing film. And then there's Dreyfuss, whose cameo is such an atrocious face-plant that it achieves a kind of brilliance. As gangster usurer Pug Rothbaum, the most dubious creation of the film's uncomfortable sideline obsession with dustbowl Jewry, Dreyfuss can't deliver a line remotely straight, turtle-heading from side to side, and shucking and jiving through a misplaced Holocaust diatribe (I half-expected him to suckle a pickle stogie). If nothing else, his Catskills act makes Norton's lame hick shtick seem positively convincing.