It is fascinating to see certain movies that achieve a specific balance between the familiar and the unique, a particular dynamic perfectly representative of writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. On the surface, the film's prevailing themes of family, reconciliation with one's roots and the tensions between educated/"upper" class and working/"lower" class are identifiable as those articulated in countless films and other cultural texts, suggesting just one more re-tread of the same material. At the same time, in an elusive sense, the particular angle the material is addressed feels somehow fresh and unique, making Leaves of Grass particularly vibrant, dynamic and compelling, both as a narrative and individual character study.
In its most distilled essence, the film charts a rampantly successful Ivy League philosophy professor (Norton) forced to return to and come to terms with his less than glamorous family ties in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Of course the narrative covers significantly more ground than that, particularly the professor being sucked into an ill-advised and hardly legal scheme by his madcap, drug dealer twin brother (also Norton), but Nelson returns so continuously to the aforementioned central themes that the increasingly complex plot surrounding them runs the risk of feeling somewhat besides the point, as enjoyable as it is. However, it is through evolving such a complex web of narrative that Nelson's film feels all the more unique, allowing him to tackle often covered themes with not only a more fresh and indirect approach, but also a great deal more authenticity. Each of the film's characters, as colourful and occasionally larger than life as they may be, feels strikingly real, making their actions and interactions within such a convoluted story alternatively more resonant and hilarious, as if each are playing the 'straight man' against an increasingly madcap story unfolding around them.
With the same charming, powerful yet slightly kooky tone which pervades many of his acting performances, Nelson sets up his film in a wonderfully askew fashion, taking delight in veering right when the logical narrative progression would suggest left, and offering a fair share of surprise twists, including several jarring or downright uncomfortable bursts of serious intensity discordantly changing altering the generally breezy mood. However thematically familiar, the framework of Nelson's film does feel refreshingly unexpected, even if it does somewhat lose its momentum towards the end, trundling towards a denouement that feels somewhat under-thought or vaguely less than effective. Nonetheless, a lively musical score and crisp editing propel the film along at a generally steady pace, assuring that despite the rare stumbling, Nelson's film feels fundamentally alive, truthful and riotously enjoyable.
But, as is common with such character-focused material, it is the cast that ultimately drives the story home. Nelson himself has admitted that he wrote the lead twin characters for Edward Norton, and it is impossible to imagine any other performer offering two such superbly nuanced, powerful and entertaining, not to mention fundamentally different characterizations within a single film, managing the rarely seen trick of playing off himself to perfection. Norton infuses so much life, passion and charisma of such varied sorts into both roles that it is easy to forget they are played by the same actor - a masterclass of acting propelling the emotional centre of the film, and almost singlehandedly making it merit viewing. Keri Russell is similarly fantastic, channeling her trademark sweet, down to earth charm into her performance as a reflective poet and teacher – her riverside philosophical musings make for some of the most quietly thought-provoking and enjoyable cinematic asides of quite some time. Tim Blake Nelson himself manages several laughs and sturdy emotional support as a stoic fellow marijuana grower, and Susan Sarandon offers raw and frequently hilarious emotional vulnerability as both Nortons' ex-hippie mother, forced to reflect on a life of questionable choices. Finally, in a tragically but necessarily brief role, Richard Dreyfuss is hilarious as a respectable Tulsa philanthropist with several shady ties to the less respectable underbelly of the community, making his few scenes shine with shrewd hilarity.
Wacky yet poignantly credible, Nelson's film hits its stride through its melding of familiar content with unfamiliar approach, propelled by a careful, clever script and tremendously memorable characters. In an age filled with ambitious studio films making hefty grabs at easy emotion, it is a delight to witness cinema that manages something powerful, profound and incredibly enjoyable without obvious, clichéd emotional hooks of any sort, making Leaves of Grass without question worth a watch.