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Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie Review: Leaves of Grass

I love movies. I love making movies, I love watching movies, I love talking about movies. As I've gotten older, and technology has evolved, and people have become ruder, I have not had the desire to go to the movie theater very much. And that sucks, because I LOVE going to the movie theater! However, in the last several months the only thing that's dragged me from my flat screen/surround sound goodness at home was Avatar, and that was because it had a fun gimmick that made an otherwise run-of-the-mill, Sunday morning-rainy-day-SciFi kind of thing that you would only really watch at home. I know people say that in order to really appreciate movies like Avatar, you HAVE TO see them in the theater. But you know what? I've never had a problem playing video games on my television or hand-held device, and never had a desire to see those video games on a big screen. In other words...BFD. Truth be told, once my ass left the seat, I all but forgot about it. It existed in each individual moment, then POOF!, it blew away.

I knew nothing about Leaves of Grass going in. I just knew that it was directed by Tim Blake Nelson, and featured Edward Norton playing a dual role (potentially a gimmick). I didn't know what to expect, and to be honest...I don't expect much from most movies these days-- even movies with actors like Norton. And if it wasn't for the fact that I was invited to a screening, I may not have taken the time or the energy to see it in the theater (Netflix for sure). Not only was I pleasantly surprised and thoroughly entertained, I doubt very seriously that there will be many films released this year that will be as good as Leaves of Grass. It's very smart, very funny, and once again proves that Mr. Edward Norton-- to use a parlance of the streets-- can act his ASS off!  It's been a LONG time since I've had the pleasure of seeing what should be, if there is any justice in the world, a sleeper hit (remember those?). But what do I know-- I'm no fancy Hollywood insider. I just know a great film when I see one.

(**Minor Spoliers**)Edward Norton plays Billy Kindaide, a philosophy professor at the top of his game. He has written books, and papers, is liked by staff and students, and even loved by one student played hilariously by Lucy Devito-- who delivers lines on Latin sentence structure like she's pouring a glass of water. When he receives news that his twin brother Brady was murdered, he makes the reluctant journey back to his home town of Little Dixie, Oklahoma. He's reluctant because he hasn't been home, or spoken to his brother or mother, in 12 years.  Only when he gets home, he discovers that his brother Brady is still alive-- he lied in order to get Billy to come home, to help out with a scheme involving the cultivation and distribution of Brady's super-special, 7th generation strain of hydroponic weed (or grass). There's a lot of weed in this movie. Philosophy and weed-- like a weekend in a dorm room. But this isn't really a "pot movie"; if anything, it'd be the Citizen Kane of pot movies (except the buds wouldn't be rose...unless the little hairs were rose-colored....). Like any good movie, it's well-formed and interesting characters that guide us through the story.

Everyone in this film is great. It seems as if the key to great comedic acting is to NOT act like you're trying to be funny. You get the idea that these people are reacting organically to their situations, and they just happen to be hilarious while doing it. Josh Pais is very funny as Ken Feinman, the orthodontist that Billy meets on the plane. Keri Russell is fine and a bit playful as Norton's love interest Janet, a local teacher and poet. It's always great to see Susan Sarandon in anything; she only has a few scenes, but she's great as Billy and Brady's hippie mom Daisy. Richard Dreyfuss also makes an appearance as Rabbi Pug Rothbaum, and manages to deliver one of the funniest lines I have heard in a movie in YEARS! And Tim Blake Nelson gives a subtle and sometimes warm performance as Brady Kindaid's best friend Bolger.

Many actors have played dual roles: Jackie Chan, Lindsay Lohan, even Arnold Schwartzenegger. But very rarely is it done well; and I'm not just talking about the CG or slight-of-hand camera tricks. Cate Blanshett did it well, and Nicolas Cage did a good job, too...but I still knew it was them playing against themselves. There's something special about what Norton does in Leaves of Grass. There were times that I completely forgot that he was playing two parts. Both performances are fully-formed, organic and believable, especially when he is on screen with himself. There was one really brief dual shot that I thought was a little jarring, but that had more to do with the effect than it did with his performance, for which he deserves a variety of mantel decorations, including a couple of golden ones.

Overall, the film is well paced, beautifully shot by Robert Shaefer (Monster's Ball, For You Consideration), and Tim Blake Nelson as the writer and director has really done such a wonderful job of sculpting a world in Oklahoma that's as vivid and as interesting to watch as the Coen Brother's visions of Fargo or Arizona. The dialogue is full and meaningful, and delivered very well all around. We hear a great deal of talk of philosophy and poetry, and none of it is dry or dull. And it's funny, without having to debase the characters. There is not one dim bulb in this film; these are all smart characters, who just happen to be doing (or have done) silly or stupid things.

These days, it's hard to get motivated to go the theater to see anything...unless something is blowing up or hurtling at you through special glasses. Leaves of Grass is a film worth seeing on a nice summer night, followed by a few drinks...or a couple of bong hits, whatever floats your boat. It doesn't seem like they make many movies like this anymore, and it's a shame. It's going to be pretty difficult to find a more stimulating movie-going experience.




1 comment:

Kevin Atteridg said...

I love Mr. Norton, and planned on seeing the film, and you just reinforced my prior beliefs! Great review!