2009 is starting to look like The Year of the Dual Role, with the stars of three major festival films acting opposite themselves as Patty Duke-esque physical copies with polar opposite personalities. In “Leaves of Grass,” Edward Norton plays classically dissimilar twin brothers –– Brady is id, Bill is superego –– who come together after a long stretch of estrangement. Norton’s dual characterization and Tim Blake Nelson’s slight-of-hand staging is more seamless and convincing than the similar tricks employed by actor Michael Cera and director Miguel Arteta in Toronto premiere “Youth in Revolt,” but even with scads of overwritten philosophically-minded dialogue, “Grass” can’t compete with the exploration of the split self offered by Sam Rockwell and Duncan Jones in the Sundance hit/summer sleeper “Moon.” With mixed results, the film combines two tones as superficially divergent as the brothers themselves: light pot-infused class comedy, and violent pulp.
A rising academic star, Bill has made such a splash in the Classics department at Brown that Harvard is trying to steal him away with an offer to develop his own curriculum. Young and charismatic, he’s particularly beloved by female students — one young coed has taken to writing him love poems “sending up Cicero with adjectives thrusting up against verbs” — but he remains ascetic. “Passion is relentlessly human, and the best we can hope for is to quell it through relentless discipline,” he lectures. To phrase it another way, as Bill does at a meeting with his Harvard suitors, “I have no life.”
BIll has gone out of his way to distance himself from his Oklahoma upbringing at the hands of a hippie mom (Susan Sarandon, who is technically old enough to have given birth to Edward Norton, but the casting still seems off) and a drug-dealing dad. His twin brother Brady has more or less followed in their father’s fuck-up footsteps; he’s gone into major debt to Tulsa-based mogul Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss, giving unconvincing accent) developing a highly potent strain of marajuana, and a crew of truckers are bullying him to start making speed. Morally against any kind of manufacturing process that could lead to an explosion, determined to find another way to settle his debt and clean his slate before his pregnant girlfriend gives birth, Brady concocts a plot to get his brother to return to Oklahoma and pose as him so Brady can slip away to Tulsa to take care of business.
About halfway through the movie takes a major swerve, with a sudden act of violence that ups the narrative stakes considerably. Yet even after this mid-film shakeup, much of “Leaves of Grass” feels trite and predetermined. Taking a cue from virtually every opposites attract plot ever filmed, Nelson drops hints from the beginning that the brothers are actually more alike than they seem — or, at least, dimwit Brady has an unexpected aptitude for problem solving that most grandly manifests itself in his invention of a high-tech hydroponic grass growing system, and class-passing Bill can’t eat cioppino without getting some on his chin. It’s obvious very quickly that this is going to be one of those movies in which someone sophisticated lands in a small town and keeps swearing that they’ll leave as soon as XYZ, but after learning a life lesson or two, usually with the help of a new love (in this case, Keri Russell as a spunky, Walt Whitman-quoting schoolteacher), end up staying indefinitely. Even within those parameters and taking into account the third act twists, it’s puzzling when a school-related plot thread is left hanging in the wind.
For all of its problems, “Leaves of Grass” remains moderately fun to watch throughout thanks to Norton’s embodiment of the two leads. The mirror image gag is one of the oldest in the book, and yet, if done well, it never really gets old.