I ain’t him and he ain’t me.
—Brady Kincaid (Edward Norton)
Leaves of Grass centers on Edward Norton as Brady and Bill Kincaid, identical twins raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma by their permissive, pot-smoking mother (Susan Sarandon). Bill, older than his brother by minutes, early on found consolation in philosophy; now he lectures classes of enraptured students on the Socratic values of moderation and self-restraint. They all laugh at his jokes; one female student writes him love letters in Latin. Harvard woos him; he appears on the cover of philosophy magazines. He is, in Brady’s words, a “famous thinker.”
To win his status as philosophy poster-boy—in this film, public intellectuals still exist in America—Bill has amputated his past, including all trace of his Oklahoma accent. His pursuit of a rational life has dulled his compassion, as well. He’s largely ignored his family, including Brady, who has become a moderately successful marijuana dealer. He cultivates his own high-potency strains using an expensive, warehouse-sized apparatus. He believes in the natural purity of marijuana, an idealism that grounds his refusal to sell harder drugs. For doing so, and for owing the wrong people money, he’s murdered by crossbow.
Or so Bill thinks. Arriving in Tulsa expecting a funeral, he finds Brady still breathing. More, Brady wants to marry his newly pregnant girlfriend, but first he needs to settle his debts. Thus begins the family reconciliation/crime farce section of the film, with Bill providing Brady’s alibi while the latter confronts a Jewish patrician and drug supplier, Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). Meanwhile, Bill begins seeing Janet (Keri Russell), an English teacher and poet who also catches catfish with her bare hands, thus supplying a quirky romantic-comedy subplot.
Brady’s Meeting with Pug Rothbaum goes badly, to say the least, and in the aftermath, Leaves of Grass loses its way. People die violently, but their deaths have little weight for either their killers or the audience. One key murder becomes a newscast punch-line. Two characters fight, one wielding a knife, the other a menorah. An earlier, random encounter leads to still more shooting.
The violence would not seem out of place in a Cohen Brothers farce, say, Burn After Reading, but Leaves of Grass lacks the slick detachment the Cohens have made their signature. The last third feels like Grand Guignol crossbred with high-concept mumblecore: bloodily farcical, but still demanding an unearned emotional investment. The plot contrivances become outrageously manipulative.
Roger Ebert loves this movie, calling it “certainly the most intelligent, philosophical and poetic film I can imagine that involves five murders in the marijuana-dealing community of Oklahoma and includes John Prine singing ‘Illegal Smile.’” Perhaps this is damning with faint praise, and I hesitate to disagree with Ebert, but I’d draw a distinction between a movie containing philosophy and poetry with a philosophical, poetic film. Everyone in Leaves of Grass offers a life philosophy: Bill lives by Plato and Aristotle, Brady alludes to Dostoevsky, Janet idolizes Walt Whitman, and Rabbi Zimmerman (Maggie Siff) adheres to Hebrew law. But their allusions are well-worn, the stuff of platitudes.
The film contorts itself in philosophically defensible ways to appear an illustration of the irreducible tension between Apollo and Dionysus, reason and irrationality. But those contortions hobble the dramatic struggle, making Leaves of Grass more like a thought experiment than a recognizably human story. It expends much sound and fury to say that only the universe is irrational, there is no law anywhere, but that still we must go on.