SXSW Film ’10 Review – Leaves of Grass



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A Pot Comedy of Philosophical Proportions


As one of the opening night selections at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Leaves of Grass has turned out to be the best film I’ve seen at the festival. So that people don’t get the wrong idea, this film is not a biopic about Walt Whitman. It’s a southern fried masterpiece set in the state of Oklahoma. Writer/director Tim Blake Nelson (best remembered as Delmar in O’ Brother Where Art Thou) returns to his home state to tell a tale that hits on the three Ps: philosophy, pot and poetry. It’s a risky film, as it has a narrative that merges crime drama, drug comedy, and classical philosophy so that it can answer the central question of what it means to live a happy life.

Having made the mistake of watching a trailer to the film weeks leading up to SXSW, I was surprised at how intelligent it was. This isn’t your ordinary pot comedy. Classic philosophers Epicurus, Aristotle and Socrates are quoted throughout, not just as a way to elevate the pot comedy but as way to bring credence to the story.

Rather than head straight into the marijuana aspects from the get-go, Nelson takes his time and opens with Norton as philosophy professor Bill Kincaid. Giving a lecture to a packed classroom at Brown University, he is allowed to build to his point about philosophers and what it means to be alive.

Bill Kincaid thinks he’s living the perfect life. He’s well known within the philosophy community. He has published books and is getting offers to teach his own curriculum at Harvard. But when he gets a telephone call informing him that his twin brother Brady died of inauspicious means, he must revisit a family he had excommunicated himself from long ago and fly down to Oklahoma. But it turns out that the death was overly exaggerated and now Bill becomes embroiled with the world of cannabis trafficking in the heart of Oklahoma.

Now that you have some idea of the plot, it’s better to leave the synopsis as is and illustrate why Leaves of Grass is an extraordinary film. All you have to do is look at Edward Norton and his dual performance as Bill and Brady Kincaid. Unlike the film Youth in Revolt, where Michael Cera’s main character is upstaged by his alter-ego, Norton flawlessly pulls off playing an Ivy League intellectual and a hick from Oklahoma who operates a hydroponic farm that specializes in quality weed. They are of equal footing, both brilliant in their own ways. That’s something to admire about Nelson. As a native of Tulsa, he doesn’t paint the residents as being slow-minded just because they speak with a strong southern accent.

It comes as no surprise to why Nelson would name his film Leaves of Grass after one of the seminal works of Walt Whitman. While Whitman wrote it as a response to heavy urbanization in America, the title serves as a metaphor for main character Bill Kincaid, who has grown leaps and bounds in academia but has lost touch with his family and past friends and his own life. One of those past friends is Janet (Keri Russell), now an English teacher and a poet. She is very opinionated and is able to see beyond the daily headaches of life, unlike Bill who has no use for poetry and would rather stick with the classic thinkers.

Of all of his films, Leaves of Grass is by far Tim Blake Nelson’s most personal work. He grew up in Tulsa, attended Brown and is Jewish – the last characteristic weaves its way into the film later on. His films O, Eye of God and The Grey Zone speak of important questions involving race, the Holocaust and religion. Grass, while presented as a typical pot comedy, is more about understanding a philosophical world – one full of laughter and tragedy – with an intellectual point of view. If that was Nelson’s intent, he has succeeded.


Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Notable Cast: Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Tim Blake Nelson, Melanie Lynskey, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Writer(s): Tim Blake Nelson

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