I couldn’t remember adding this movie to my queue, and didn’t remember anything I’d read about it. “Leaves of Grass”— sounds like a pretty typical, probably genial movie about a college professor—probably okay. Then I read the blurb again and realized that “grass” was a pun. A movie about potheads . . . wonderful. The trailers, for things I’d never heard of and have no wish to see—movies like As Good As Dead and The Locksmith—were no more promising. But, surprisingly, Walt Whitman does make an appearance (at least his poetry does), and the movie is very appealing.
True, you’ve seen this movie before, for the most part. It’s a lot like a Coen brothers’ film, with wackiness, violence, and middle-America combined in unexpectable proportions. It’s your basic story where an uptight guy goes home to his family and rediscovers wisdom. It’s your basic story where two guys who look exactly alike switch places with hilarious results. It’s your basic buddy story. And it’s your basic story about the ability of a good woman to save a man, with a neat twist on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Nelson’s movie takes place in Abilene Idabel, Oklahoma, in the area of the state nicknamed “Little Dixie,” and in neighboring Broken Bow. Billy Kincaid, played by Edward Norton, is an up-and-coming professor of the classics and philosophy. Brady Kincaid, also played by Norton (of course), is a drug dealer. Their dad was a druggie, and so is their mom, a pleasant crazy woman in her fifties who lives with the elderly in a rest home because she likes it. Long ago, Billy fled an environment he felt he simply couldn’t cope with. Now, he is flying home for what he believes is a family emergency. Quickly enough, he is entangled in his brother’s mad, criminal—and ultimately, inevitably violent—schemes.
Leaves of Grass is basically a quiet indie film, with a little violence thrown in, generally kind of slow moving. In addition to Joel and Ethan Coen, it reminded me a little of Craig Brewer, who sets his films in Memphis, where he grew up. What makes the movie interesting are the characters. It’s true that some of the characters you’ve also seen before. It would be a stretch to call Edward Norton’s stoner brother “charismatic.” He’s a skinny guy with Jesus hair (picture Ted Neeley, the way he looked in the film of Jesus Christ, Superstar, but with middle-aged jowls, and you won’t be far off), one of those regular-American types who didn’t go to a fancy college and doesn’t have what you’d really call ambition, but who is super-smart, can figure things out and build things, is curious, and likes to read well enough. He plays the guitar a little and throws parties, and he has a rather wide variety of friends, but aside from an obsession or two, he’s a drifter. The other twin, despite his Indiana Jones/Ryan O’Neal good looks, doesn’t have charisma, either. He did go to a fancy college, though. He got a Ph.D., and teaches in the Ivy League, and is on the verge of being given—by Harvard!—an institute to run that will permit him to apply the study of classical philosophy to the study of law. His special interest appears to be the importance of reason in controlling the passions, and the impossibility of doing so. He worries that back home, where he came from, people abandoned the idea of having any structure at all in their lives, and lapsed almost irredeemably into a hopeless haze, punctuated by intermittent violence and smoothed over with illegal drugs. He’s the usual uptight Eastern elitist to his brother’s happy-go-lucky good guy.
The female characters, however, aren’t women you see in Hollywood movies often, if at all. One of them, at least: the hometown love interest, played by Keri Russell. We don’t see enough even of her. It’s not a coincidence that the New York Times review doesn’t mention a single woman character, and Roger Ebert’s grants female characters exactly one paragraph, plus one sentence (he calls Russell’s character, Janet, “valuable,” which is surely high praise). But it’s something that such an original character—one who, if you think about it, we really should see a lot more of, in movies, than we do (and why we don’t has to be a topic for a different day)—appears at all. She’s an English teacher, with a Ph.D. or at least some graduate studies behind her, who decided that she prefers teaching high school. She talks like an English teacher, an educated woman and a poet, what Brady might be if he spent a little time thinking about real life and real people, instead of collecting psychedelic posters and new-fangled plant foods. She also wrassles catfish into submission and guts them on the riverbank. What keeps her from manic pixiedom (Brady is much more of a pixieish character, in fact) is her ordinariness. She offers Professor Kincaid a glimpse of what life could be like for an educated person like him who wanted to live in the place he came from, a place where people look out for each other (unlike, it turns out, the ivy tower, where one tiny hint of sex could be capable of ruining a career). Russell, with all her high-falutin talk about language and psychology, looks comfortable in the landscape in a way none of the other characters does.
There’s a parallel storyline about a Jewish orthodontist who’s been forced by economic circumstances to move his family back home from New York to Omaha Tulsa, so it's very timely; and the plotline leads through a synagogue where the rabbi is a woman played by Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken on Mad Men). Here are more echoes of the Coens’, in this case, of A Serious Man. Richard Dreyfus’s rant, as Bug Rothbaum, at Brady Kincaid and his friend Bulger (played by the director, Tim Blake Nelson), is brilliantly funny—he wants consideration, in spite of being a violent organized crime boss, because he donates money for buildings in the community, and gives most of his money to Israel—and he gets what’s coming to him—as with the Coen brothers, the world is violent and incomprehensible, but it is nothing if not just.
These characters talk and think about theology. They wonder why life, for them, is so messed up, and whether there’s anything they can do to fix things. Although you won’t find anything deeper here than a high school kid’s ruminations over pizza and a bag of potato chips, these people are not stupid, and the filmmaker wants you to know it. There are more things between the East Coast and the West than are dreamt of in a Brown professor’s philosophy.
 Manic pixie dream girls “are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (often brooding or depressed) male protagonist.”
 Martha Nussbaum, who holds a similar “dual” appointment in philosophy, law, and religion, and whose specialty has long been in the ancient Greeks, is credited as an advisor on “philosophy and academia.”