Tim Blake Nelson’s new film has a title, “Leaves of Grass,” that has two meanings for its protagonists — it explicitly references both the Walt Whitman magnum opus and marijuana. That’s only appropriate for a film that is structured around doubling, doppelgangers, secret lives and identities.
But it is even more apt for a film that engages in a subtle and difficult balancing act between farce, philosophy and brutal violence. Nelson manages to juggle those elements skillfully, no small achievement for a writer-director in only his fourth feature film.
“Leaves of Grass” draws together several disparate threads from Nelson’s own life. The film’s central characters include Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton), like Nelson an Oklahoma-born Ivy-League educated classicist, his identical twin brother Brady (Norton again), a whip-smart but unschooled marijuana grower of prodigious appetites and interests, and several members of the Tulsa Jewish community in which Nelson grew up. (When Bill meets orthodontist Ken Feinman, who is deftly played by Josh Pais, as they both return to Oklahoma, the first question he asks is, “Are there Jews in Tulsa?” Undoubtedly that is the first question Nelson gets asked in most interviews.)
Bill is a rising star in the academic world. A philosophy journal (which looks uncomfortably like Forbes or Fortune) calls him “The New Face of Classical Thought,” and his students worship him, at least one with aggressive sexual advances. He tells them, and anyone else who will listen, that a happy life is achieved by finding a balance between once desires and the self-control necessary to not give in to them willy-nilly.
Meanwhile, back in the corner of Oklahoma called Little Dixie, Brady lives by a rather different principle, giving in to temptation whenever possible, but drawing the line professionally at dealing hard drugs. This decision has put him at odds with the largest drug kingpin in the state, Pug Rothbaum (played by Richard Dreyfuss as a hilariously bombastic more Jewish extension of his Dick Cheney from “W”).
When Bill receives a telegram stating that Brady has been murdered, he reluctantly goes home to find Brady very much alive, but in need of his identical twin as cover for a plan to get out from under Rothbaum and his violent minions. Things rapidly spiral out of control, moving quickly from the farce of Brady and his sidekick Bolger (Nelson himself) trying to slip unnoticed into Shabbos morning services to see Pug, to a meeting with Pug and two henchman that ends with three bloody corpses and a faked hate crime.
In the meantime, Bill is becoming enamored of Janet (Keri Russell), a highly intelligent poet and schoolteacher, and is making a minimal effort to reconcile with his aging hippie mom (Susan Sarandon). Eventually, Nelson brings all the elements together like a series of high-speed car crashes on ice.
“Leaves of Grass” looks like a strange departure for a man whose immediately previous film was “The Grey Zone,” one of the few films about the Shoah to actually catch some of the philosophical implications of depicting that most appalling of historical junctures. In fact, “Leaves” makes a very interesting counterpoint to its predecessor, a sort of low-key “The Tempest” to the earlier film’s “King Lear,” a gentle and tentative suggestion that there may be a way back from the darkness of a brutality less all-encompassing and cataclysmic than that of the Shoah.
Toward the end of the film, Bill seeks counsel from the rabbi at Rothbaum’s synagogue (a brief but telling performance by Maggie Siff). She invokes the classical Jewish injunction to “repair the world.” If there is any thematic line that unites Nelson’s four films despite their wildly disparate subjects, settings and genres, it is that instruction, tempered by the rueful knowledge that it is well-nigh impossible for an individual to perform in any but the most limited ways. The Othello character in Nelson’s “O” is doomed, the sonderkommandos in Auschwitz are doomed, almost all the characters in “Leaves” are doomed, but those who struggle with the order “tikkun olam” are provided some small respite.
That would seem to be the message of “Leaves of Grass,” which ends with some modified family unit restored and an overhead shot of Bill and Janet holding hands across a volume of Whitman as a gentle summer rain slowly drenches the landscape. It’s a pleasing, if only guardedly optimistic message, one that grows gracefully and organically out of the complicated dualities of the film. It all suggests that Nelson is becoming a filmmaker to be reckoned with. n
“Leaves of Grass,” written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, opens Friday, April 2 at the Angelika Film Center (Houston and Mercer streets). For information, visit www.angelikafilmcenter.com.
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