One of the reasons I liked Edward Norton right off the bat as an actor with his first performance in “Primal Fear” is because he tackled one of the big showstopper scenery chewing archetypes, but his performance demonstrated a dedication to detail that was impressive. I’ve done a lot of reading about multiple personality disorder over the years, and Norton got all the little things right. Not in a showy way, but in a way that suggested a meticulous performer, a guy who was going to push himself.
Over the course of his career, that’s what he’s done consistently and well. He is not someone who coasts on an easily defined character that he plays over and over. He vanishes into roles. He transforms himself. And he always reaches for those little details that sell something. Because he’s that kind of actor, there are certain things I’ve always wanted to see him do, and as someone who is slightly obsessed with the idea of movies in which one actor plays twins, this was one of those challenges I always wanted to see him attempt.
Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, “Leaves Of Grass” casts Norton as Bill and Brady Kincaid. One is an academic, quickly climbing the social ladder of the university world, and the other is a pot farmer. To be fair, he’s an amazing pot farmer, an artist of sorts, and he’s scrupulously ethical about what he will and won’t do. That’s proving to be a problem for him as Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss), the gangster who staked him in the first place, is pressuring him to use his greenhouse as a meth manufacturing location, something Brady’s deeply opposed to. Seeing no other way out of his problem, Brady lays out a long con that starts with him faking his own death so that Bill, struggling with his own career issues, is called home for the funeral. Once he learns Brady is alive, Bill tries to flee, but he gets pulled back into his brother’s orbit, and over the course of a long, deranged weekend, everything about his life changes. He’s got to deal with his estranged mother (Susan Sarandon) and he meets a woman who deflates almost every idea he has about himself, Janet (Keri Russell in another winning appearance), and of course, he’s got to work out his feelings about his brother.
It’s Southern-fried crazy at times, and at other times, it’s very gentle. I’ve read a few comparisons of the film to the Coen Brothers, who Nelson has obviously worked with, but the film has a tone that is fairly unique. I think Nelson’s got a real voice as a filmmaker. “Leaves Of Grass” is a little uneven at times, and the left turns it takes as it gets closer to the end might feel like a whole new movie, but that seems to be intentional. Nelson wants to lull you a bit before he starts to make it count. And through it all, the two performances by Edward Norton feel natural, relaxed, utterly unlike a gimmick. Bill and Brady are very different creations, and I love the energy he brings to the Brady role. He’s a philosopher, a scientist when it comes to the cultivation of weed, a family man. He’s at peace with his world in a way his brother can only dream of, and it’s nice to see how completely Norton is able to switch personalities. At some point early on, any thoughts of how it was technically done evaporate, and the relationship between these brothers becomes this genuine thing, never mind who’s playing both of them.
It’s a good looking movie thanks to Robert Schaefer, and the score by Jeff Danna is appropriate, providing just the right support to the film’s various tonal shifts. The entire cast does really nice work, with Russell and Norton exhibiting some real chemistry. Dreyfuss has fun as Jewish underworld overlord Pug Rothbaum, and Susan Sarandon is quite affecting in her few scenes as Daisy, mother to the twins. Nelson himself takes the key role of Bolger, Brady’s right-hand man, and he helps set the tone for their scenes. Even Lucy DeVito, in a small but pivotal role at the start of the film, is very good. It’s obvious Nelson knows how to encourage the best from a cast, a real actor’s director.
“Leaves Of Grass” is open now in limited release.
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