Don’t be misled by the title Leaves of Grass. Do not expect literacy, either. This stoner comedy has nothing whatsoever to do with Walt Whitman or poetry of any kind. It’s just another oblique backfire from Tim Blake Nelson, whose work as a writer and director, in general, wallows in a bog of mediocrity. In fairness, I admit I once admired his horror film The Grey Zone, a nightmarish black and white study of life and death in a Nazi concentration camp so relentlessly depressing that almost nobody liked it except me. But it’s been downhill from there.
At least this one features the consummate talents of the versatile Edward Norton. Ever watchable when it comes to acting, if not always reliable when it comes to picking scripts, he plays identical twins as different as a taco and a tornado: Bill Kincaid is a clean-cut, button-down Ivy League philosophy professor at Brown University in Ralph Lauren Polo with an offer from Harvard. His brother Brady is a drawling, greasy-haired Smith Brothers cough drop box cover who has developed his own hydroponic growing system for farming the best marijuana crops in Oklahoma.
Devoting his life to scholarly pursuits, shedding his Southern accent and redneck family roots and vowing to stay far away from both his hillbilly brother and a crazy Mammy Yoakum mother right out of Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch (Susan Sarandon), Bill is lured back home to Little Dixie, Okla., to attend Brady’s funeral on the pretense that his brother has been murdered.
But Holy Hog Slop, as Walter Brennan used to say, Mom has checked herself into a rest home and Brady, it seems, has faked his own death and hatched a lethal plan to wipe out a vicious drug dealer and synagogue leader with the unlikely name Pug Rothbaum (a colorful Richard Dreyfuss) that requires him to be in two places at once.
This forces Bill to play along, pretending to be his own brother while Brady pulls off the crime in another town (Norton plays both roles). Facing a scandal and prison sentence that could destroy his academic career, Bill is struck by the realization that nothing he learned in his philosophy texts can get him out of this mess and back to the lecture halls of Cambridge, Mass. The film’s biggest flaw: If he’s a professor of logic, how could he be so dumb?
Despite the implausible plot and a series of snafus that almost doom them both, a smidgen of interest grows as Bill and Brady are reunited. An oddball chemistry builds, and Bill’s orderly life unravels. But director Nelson, a cornball actor at best, is over the top as a larcenous Pa Kettle of a redneck sidekick, and Keri Russell is totally wasted as a love interest for Bill that seems like an afterthought. She’s the one who quotes Walt Whitman “because it has no rhyme or meter,” while she’s gutting a 40-pound catfish.
Nelson, a native of Tulsa, tries to bring some homespun snuff-spitting Tobacco Road ambience to the Oklahoma hick-town settings, but aside from the frenetic pacing and the fascination of watching the skillful Norton juggle dual roles, there isn’t much fun or originality to be experienced here.
Leaves of Grass also contains some shocking, blood-splattering violence that seems grimly at odds with the rest of its comic style.
The mirror has two faces idea is nothing new. From Bette Davis in Dead Ringer to Sam Rockwell in Moon, dozens of seasoned actors have lit each other’s cigarettes while the audience thinks it is seeing double in much better pictures than this one. In Leaves of Grass, it seems irrelevant and recycled—essentially nothing more than a gimmick that wears out fast.