Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tim Blake Nelson's LEAVES OF GRASS gets a quick theatrical drop before DVD arrival

Tim Blake Nelson ought to be declared a national cinema treasure, little-guy-level. This fellow, a triple (maybe quadruple) threat, can act (which he does most often, and brillliantly), write, direct and even sing (see -- perhaps for the umpteenth time -- O Brother, Where Art Thou?).  Oh, yes: he's also a sometimes producer. As an actor (mostly "character" parts), Nelson has performed in nearly 50 roles over almost 20 years, including some under-seen delights like Cherish, in which he plays a goofy, sexy leading man, and the very funny and halfway bleak/dark (a mode this actor seems to favor) The Big White to the shamefully underseen American Violet. 

As writer/director Nelson (shown at right) has made several notable films that, if they set neither the box-office nor the critical establishment aflame, were certainly worth seeing and mulling: the strange, disturbing, very well-cast-and-acted Eye of God (1997), his odd-angled Holocaust movie The Grey Zone (2001), and now the very funny and endearing, yet violent, sunshine-and-shade comedy LEAVES OF GRASS. (Nelson also directed the better-than-expected modernization of Othello, called O, also from 2001, in which Josh Hartnett essayed Iago -- to surprisingly good effect.)  To my mind, everything this man puts his talent to ends up worth seeing -- often more than once.

Leaves of Grass -- a lovely combination of  Walt Whitman and marijuana -- is an immediate appealing and involving story that allows one of America's best actors to play a pair of identical twins. If Bette Davis could do it, why not Edward Norton (above)?  The latter out-bets Bette, too -- playing (1) a somewhat uptight Ivy League scholar/professor on the fast track to fame and (2) his down-home, Oklahoma brother, who's a big-time pot grower involved with a host of shady characters. When Ivy League is conned into re-visiting his home town, Norton gets to slowly and very nicely shift the accent of the northern-based brother back to the south.  The actor does everything else just about perfectly, too. You can see why he wouldn't pass up a role like this.

The movie's milieu is both interesting and odd, and the supporting cast boasts the likes of Susan Sarandon (below)as the twin's mom, Richard Dreyfus (above) as a prominent Jewish businessman, Melanie Lynskey as the girlfriend of the southern Norton, Keri Russell (two photos below, a standout) as the smart and feisty young woman toward whom the northern Norton feels a pull, and the writer/director himself (at bottom, left) in a prominent role as the pot-grower's best pal. (Look for a nice turn by Modern Family's Ty Burrell, too.)

The movie zings along with speed and surprising grace, which is even more surprising, considering the amount and kind of violence scattered throughout the film.  It's sometimes bloody and shocking, even though it should not be unexpected in a film about the turf wars of shoddy drug dealers.

But so lovingly and delightfully has Nelson crafted his movie that we become involved with these people more as "friends" than as the paper-thin, action-movie characters found in most drug-themed stuff. And so we may get temporarily tripped up by the sudden darkness encountered. Yet, by balancing the comic with the bleak and black (while adding yet another dose of the dark-and funny to Mr. Nelson's growing oeuvre), the movie works.

Religion takes its licks here (at times the movie put me in mind of the Cohen Bros' A Serious Man), although the scene with the woman rabbi is quite lovely and benign (the women in Nelson's movies tend to be a lot smarter, deeper and more thoughtful than are the men).

From First Look Studios, Leaves of Grass opened this past Friday in New York City, Baltimore and Tulsa, OK.  Next week it debuts in Austin, Texas, and the week thereafter in Cape Cod, Anchorage and elsewhere. Click here for what details its distributor has seen fit to provide.


Derek Fischer said...

Norton easily delivers one of the best performances of the year in this. I was also caught off guard by the film's sudden shift in tone, but Nelson held it together. Looking forward to seeing more from him.

James van Maanen, said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James van Maanen, said...

I was caught off guard, too, and it's good to have that happen from time to time while watching a movie (so long as the filmmaker doesn't screw up his clashing tones). But, as you say, Nelson manages to hold things together.) Once you see more of Nelson's work, I hope you'll weigh-in on him on your own blog.