Thursday, November 4, 2010

Leaves of Grass

Perhaps if I watch this movie again, I’ll be able to appreciate it more. It’s certainly a good, funny movie, but as a clash of two worlds (academic vs. hick stoner, both represented here by Edward Norton), the one I much preferred was the send-up of academia, and I feel it was sadly underrepresented here. What we wind up with instead, with an unexpected murder and an astonishingly weird stand-off, is pretty entertaining in its own right. It just seems a bit of a shame that we couldn’t get a full hour and a half of comments about how academia is just people writing papers about papers other people have written.

But anyway, to sidestep my nerdiness for a bit, the film has Edward Norton pulling double duty as twin brothers, one of which is a philosophy professor who, shortly after almost being sexually assaulted by a female student, hears the tragic news that his brother has been killed with a crossbow. Flying back to his home state of Oklahoma, he quickly learns that his brother is quite alive and well, and in fact just had a friend tell him (Academic Norton) he (Stoner Norton) was dead so that he (Academic) would come visit in time for his (Stoner) pending wedding. Oh, and also could he (Academic) go visit their mother while impersonating his brother so that he (Stoner) can go do a major drug deal while appearing to law enforcement officials to be in another part of town?

Let’s get one thing out of the way here: while the story is a bit muddled at times, the film is generally pretty damn funny. In my opinion, it’s at it’s best during such statements as when Stoner Norton mentions that to help read his brother’s published paper on someone else’s paper on Heidegger, he read through the entire Oxford English Dictionary (yes, it was funny to me, and should be to anyone with an English degree), but it still works fairly well when it devolves into drug world humor (the battle between one man armed with a knife and another armed with a brass menorah is a particular highlight). It’s also obviously quite well acted, not just by Norton himself (though let’s face it, he is one of the best actors in Hollywood today) but by such supporting actors as Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfuss. No matter where you look, someone new keeps popping up to entertain you.

Indeed, that might almost be a problem with the film. It has so many different ideas that it starts to lose focus on what it’s trying to accomplish. All too frequently we get great scene set-ups that end with gunfights, seemingly as though writer-director Tim Blake Nelson wasn’t sure how to end what he had begun. Even with the large supporting cast, you’ll often get a new character appearing just to get you all excited about how goofy and neat they’re going to be, and then they leave forever just like your father did because you misbehaved too much.

Still, just like your absentee father, at least when they’re around they’re delightful. And if the movie isn’t everything that it could have, or should have been, then at least it’s better than the bulk of comedies that come out of Hollywood. That should certainly count for something, as should the fact that it took the time to linger on a shot of Walt Whitman’s famous poetry book “Leaves of Grass” to try to distract us from how the leaves of grass in the trailer are pot leafs. It’s that touch of class that makes it all better, you know?

Rating: ***

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