October 18, 2010

Justify My Netflix: Leaves of Grass

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Leaves of Grass

Today's movie: Leaves of Grass, 2010 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because I've been looking forward to this latest by Tim Blake Nelson since first hearing about it last year, where it made a big splash at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, with it just this month inventively getting released in theatres and on DVD at the same time, in order to get the most bang for its miniscule marketing buck, an acting tour-de-force by Edward Norton (in a stoner comedy, no less) that's been receiving Oscar buzz almost since the day people first started seeing it.

The reality: WOW. Well, you can accept the Oscar hype as real, that's for sure; and in fact, since this turns out to be an example of a nearly perfect three-act narrative tale, I thought I would take a little more space than usual today to examine why exactly that is, and which elements from this thinking-person's crowdpleaser can be applied to your own upcoming creative project in order to make it a little better...

--First, of course, the story has a great hook: it's the tale of identical twins (both played by Norton, using clever computer compositing to maximum effect) who are raised by brilliant but drug-addicted hippie parents in 1970s Oklahoma, within a family line that has a long history of criminal behavior (their grandfather was a bootlegger during Prohibition, for example), and how this affects the brothers in almost opposite ways -- how the good-ol'-boy Brady eventually becomes the biggest pot dealer in the state, by constructing an ingeniously cutting-edge hydroponic farm and sophisticated breeding program, while the straight-laced Bill eventually moves to New England, sheds his panhandle accent, and becomes a "rockstar professor" of classical philosophy, their lives only intersecting again when Brady cons Bill into a hometown visit in order to help him pull off an elaborate, half-baked scheme to get rid of his $200,000 in farm construction debts.

--But ignoring its mere entertainment value, you'll also see that this is a quite deep character study as well, an extremely smart one that references how the same inborn traits might affect two otherwise identical people in very different ways, based on which parts of their personalities they choose to embrace; just to cite one obvious example, how it is their shared near-prodigal intelligence that leads both Bill into academic stardom and Brady into the production of mythologically-high-quality drugs, even though we eventually find out that Bill was actually the much bigger pothead back when they were teenagers. And by casting Susan Sarandon as their almost elderly mother, whose decades of rampant drug abuse has nearly totally fried her brain by this point, Nelson is able to get a lot of emotional mileage out of the family environment these brothers grew up in, and how both the highs and lows of that life could easily lead the two in the opposite yet equally radical directions they went as adults.

--Then on top of this, Nelson has a much deeper philosophical point to make with his story as well, which all the best stories in history always have -- basically, that even when a set of people by and large live remarkably similar lives, it is the little decisions concerning personal ethics that can have big repercussions at the most important moments, sometimes even without realizing that the two are connected. And in fact this was probably my favorite aspect of all about this film, a message that Nelson gets across through remarkably subtle means during all kinds of different moments -- that even though Bill and Brady's lives are generally filled with the same ups and downs, highs and lows, planned successes and accidental failures, it is ultimately Bill's rejection of criminality and moral relativism that makes his life just a little better in the places that really count, the thing that so obsessively drove him to classical philosophy in the first place, while it's the embrace of these things by Brady that ultimately leads to all the bad things that happen to him, both comic and tragic in nature, even though Nelson goes out of his way to make the two brothers equal in sympathy, charm, and sheer good luck. (And I should mention that this is especially hammered home during the movie's multiple-surprise-filled ending, which not only packs a powerful emotional punch but manages to unexpectedly make a clever reference to a throwaway joke at the beginning of the film, thus fulfilling Chekhov's oft-mentioned dramatic rule about how if you mention a gun in the first act of your story, you damn well better fire it by the third.)

--And then finally, also like the best storytellers out there, Nelson uses some bizarre true facts about his own background to great effect here, using them to help flesh out and add some quirkily lovely touches to what could've easily been an overly talky snoozer; because not only is he in real life a former good ol' boy from rural Oklahoma who eventually got a degree in Classical Studies, a subject that highly informs this action-based plot (it's no coincidence that Professor Bill mentions both epicureans and stoics in his opening monologue), but he was also a member of the surprisingly populous Jewish community of Tulsa, the milieu wherein all the drug money and construction loans in Nelson's script flows, and of which he also uses to great comedic effect within the film itself, including the casting of a brilliantly off-type Richard Dreyfuss as a bruising Jewish redneck crime lord who got into drugs in the first place so to raised that much more money for the state of Israel. (And while we're on the subject of brilliant casting, let's not forget Keri Russell as Bill's love interest, a fellow academic star but incurable tomboy [she's the state champion of catching catfish with her bare hands], who gave up her own big-city life in order to move back to Oklahoma and teach high-school English, a passionate fan of Walt Whitman which is just one of many things that metaphorically influenced this movie's title. And of course, don't forget that Nelson is not only the writer and director, but for years has been a popular actor himself, and in fact even in this film plays a major role, as Brady's scar-covered best friend Bolger.)

Add it all up, and you get a movie that just keeps providing and providing, the longer you keep thinking about all its various facets, which the last time I checked is really what winning Oscars should be about. Don't let this utterly charming sleeper with the nonexistent publicity budget pass you by -- it could very well turn out to be one of your favorite films of the year, which is certainly the case for me.

Strangest piece of trivia: Norton was so eager to star in this, he actually took a 50-percent cut in his usual pay.

Worth your time? Absolutely

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:41 PM, October 18, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |