I just recently saw Primal Fear again, Edward Norton’s first major role where he plays the convicted murderer stricken with multiple personality disorder…or so we’re made to think. The challenge here was not only how to portray his character to the audience but also to the characters in the film. It’s since become an iconic performance and most likely what led to even greater roles like a Derek Vinyard in American History X. I bring up Norton’s abilities in this respect because he returns to those early acting roots in Leaves of Grass, performing in a dual role of brothers caught up in a ridiculous web of circumstance, chance, and maybe even a little irony. An up-and-coming Tim Blake Nelson writes and directs this insightful black comedy, throwing humor and tension-filled drama together for both of Norton’s characters to sort out.
The movie opens on Bill Kincaid (Norton), a philosophy classics professor at Brown giving a lecture to a class who’s fixated on his every word. You quickly learn Bill’s intellect is off the charts and that every academic is drooling over him, most notably Harvard, who want him start a philosophy department in their Law School. Little does the academic world know that Bill is simply a native Oklahoman who’d rather forget his family consisting of his drug-loving-hippie mother, Daisy (Susan Sarandon) and his equally brilliant pot-dealing brother, Brady. We first find Brady trying to explain his principles on selling marijuana when we find the powers that be in the Great Plains want him to start thinking about expanding his business. The dilemma causes Brady to lure his estranged brother back to Oklahoma by sending word that he was killed in a crossbow blunder. Bill arrives home and comes to find Brady alive, well, and working on a way to deal with a local businessman, Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Cleverly tricking Bill with his own guilt, Brady gets him to stay for a few extra days in order to hatch his hair-brained scheme. Of course, things go very wrong and as a result, Bill’s life as a hotshot academic begin to quickly unravel–but not before meeting a love interest in Janet (Keri Russell), who is (surprise, surprise) a poet and high school English teacher.
The first part of the film was excellent and leaves you wondering where the story is headed. The dialogue was extremely witty and well-written where Norton character is concerned–his opening monologue sets up the tone of the movie and gives it direction. The following scene involves Bill and his lovestruck student as they discuss a topic for his class, when she begins to strip and confess her love for him in Latin. It’s a hilarious scene where Norton’s character shows a rigid awkwardness, traits which become directly contradicted in the following scene involving Brady’s explanation on why he’s a pioneer of growing hydroponics in his state-of-the-art grow house. And when both brothers reunite, we see the best interactions of the movie, Brady methodically trying to guilt his brother into staying while Bill tries make heads as to what’s going on. Brady tries to understand Bill’s academic studies by commenting on how all academics ever do is write about a person who wrote about a person who wrote actually something original. Billy’s only response after being pressured into smoking some of Brady’s finest is that he just eloquently described academia. It’s a classic scene showcasing Norton’s fantastic acting range.
Then came the second part of the film, which might have felt a bit iffy at times. The plot starts to really unfold and things seemed all too coincidental when random occurrences materialize that would otherwise seem ridiculous. One of the sub-plots involves Bill meeting a Jewish orthodontist, Ken Feinman (Josh Pais) who’s having financial woes living out in the Midwest. Through a varying set of circumstances, Ken and Bill meet up again on more interesting terms, feeling way too convenient that their paths would cross again so easily. Norton is there though to save all the scenes that need saving and actually empathizes with the audience towards the end, saying that this is too much coincidence, even for him.
Edward Norton’s performance was amazing to watch–he went seamlessly from brother to brother playing the uptight academic square one second to a pestering, influential con man the next. Tim Blake Nelson also plays the role of Brady’s best friend Bolger, who had a fantastic part in the movie as Brady’s right-hand man, and who felt every bit as smart our protagonists, but knew how to keep it low key. Sarandon also played an interesting role as their mother, although her role didn’t require much depth. Keri Russell played what felt like a one-dimensional role and the romantic scenes between her and Norton felt too empty. The relationship between Bill and Janet seemed like a weaker point in the film even though I felt there was chemistry there. Russell did an okay job as the “I don’t care, I’m a free spirit” shtick, getting Bill to loosen up and realize the error of his philosophical ways, but ultimately, it was kinda lame. Even though it felt forced at times, I still enjoyed the tough, catfish noodler and Walt Whitman reading, free verse poet that Russell brought to the table.. Richard Dreyfuss probably played the weirdest, and ultimately the worst role in the movie as a Jewish-Oklahoman businessman who is secretly a mobster. His attempts at the Okie accent felt so unauthentic, even for someone who lives on the east coast, and I can guarantee it felt the same way even for a native. On the other hand, watching him slug it out with a menorah was quite amusing to watch.
Grass is a quirky and fun adventure piece that really grabs a hold of you. It’s got a blatant humor about it, but doesn’t fail to deliver on its excellent subtle nuances. Norton alone was worth the price of admission in this one, so invest in catching this one when you can.