Leaves Of Grass sounds far worse on paper than it is on screen: estranged identical twins — one an Ivy League philosophy professor, the other an Oklahoma pot farmer — are reunited when the latter is shaken down by a Jewish mobster played by Richard Dreyfuss (he’s back!). To top it off, this comic parable about the value of one’s kin was written and directed by the dopiest of O Brother’s Soggy Bottom Boys, last behind the camera for a holocaust drama and a high school adaptation of Othello. Playing the twins is none other than Edward Norton, returning to comedy for the first time since Death To Smoochy. Excited, yet?
While Tim Blake Nelson may not make much out of his bizarre conflation than “family matters,” the director does a remarkable job of never growing glib or callow, even as brutal violence infuses the farcical plot (when a gun, knife, or crossbow appears on screen, it rarely misses its target). A Brown graduate from Okie country himself, Nelson’s genuine affection for philosophical pursuit, whether academic or chemical, infuses the absurdity with a sympathetic but rarely saccharine tone. Edward Norton’s mild-mannered qualities serve him well here, acting as a bond between the disparate archetypes he portrays and allowing the noise around him to distract us from “how’d they get that shot” technical queries.
Norton’s female foils (Melanie Lynskey, Keri Russell, and Susan Sarandon), though underutilized, suggest inner lives that could be explored further — even backwater bandits like the ones portrayed by Steve Earle and Nelson himself aren’t reduced to caricatures. Though Nelson’s family focus might keep the film from earning the kind of cult a more acidic stoner action comedy like Pineapple Express earns, there’s still a potential second life if Leaves Of Grass slips under the radar: ignore the climax and HBO could probably milk five seasons and some Golden Globes out of the material.