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The Socratic Problem: Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass”

The Socratic Problem: Tim Blake Nelson's "Leaves of Grass"

Early in Leaves of Grass, Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton), delivers a lecture praising the Socratic ideas of self-control and rational order. Kincaid is a somewhat stiff academic who claims that a commitment to said principles helped him work his way up from an unpromising adolescence in an Oklahoma backwater to an Ivy League education. Such speechifying is par for the course in writer-director Tim Blake Nelson’s screenplay, which tends to favor intellectual straw men. So, while Norton plays him with a certain brainy charm, we know from minute one that Bill’s theoretical loyalty to a carefully controlled life of the mind is meant to be looked upon with a skeptical, if not dismissive, eye. As with so many professorial types in the movies, his carefully held scholarly ideals need to be largely abandoned so he can accept life’s messiness, let other people in, etc. This is what proves most troubling about Leaves of Grass: Nelson’s simplistic and vaguely anti-intellectual message of embracing life’s “unpredictability.” For a film that sincerely namedrops the great thinkers, such a pat understanding of the human condition puts Leaves of Grass in a state of internal conflict that it never figures out how to resolve. Read the rest of Matt Connolly’s review of Leaves of Grass.

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