Oh, Brother

rexleavesofgrass Oh, BrotherLEAVES OF GRASS
RUNNING TIME 105 minutes
WRITTEN AND directed by Tim Blake Nelson
STARRING  Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Blake Nelson

2 Eyeballs out of 4

eyeball Oh, Brothereyeball Oh, Brother

Don’t be misled by the title Leaves of Grass. Do not expect literacy, either. This stoner comedy has nothing whatsoever to do with Walt Whitman or poetry of any kind. It’s just another oblique backfire from Tim Blake Nelson, whose work as a writer-director in general wallows in a bog of mediocrity. In fairness, I admit I once admired his horror film The Grey Zone, a nightmarish, black-and-white study of life and death in a Nazi concentration camp that is so relentlessly depressing almost nobody liked it except me. But it’s been downhill from there.

At least this one features the consummate talents of the versatile Edward Norton. Ever watchable when it comes to acting, if not always reliable when it comes to picking scripts, he plays identical twins as different as a taco and a tornado. Bill Kincaid is a clean-cut, button-down Ivy League philosophy professor in Ralph Lauren Polo on his way to a teaching chair at Harvard. His brother, Brady, is a drawling, greasy-haired Smith Brothers cough-drop-box cover who has developed his own hydroponic system for growing the best marijuana crops in Oklahoma. Devoting his life to scholarly pursuits, shedding his Southern accent and redneck family roots (their grandfather was a bootlegger) and vowing to stay as far away as jet planes can fly from both his hillbilly brother and a crazy Mammy Yoakum mother right out of Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch (Susan Sarandon, again), Bill is reluctantly lured back home to Little Dixie, Oklahoma, for the first time in 12 years to briefly attend Brady’s funeral on the false pretense that his brother has been murdered. But Holy Hog Slop, as Walter Brennan used to say, Mom has checked herself into a rest home and Brady, it seems, has faked his own death and hatched a lethal plan to wipe out a vicious drug dealer and synagogue leader with the unlikely name of Pug Rothbaum (a colorful Richard Dreyfuss); the plan requires him to be in two places at once. This forces Bill to play along, pretending to be his own brother while Brady pulls off the crime in another town. Facing a scandal and a prison sentence that could destroy his academic career, Bill is struck by the realization that nothing he learned in his philosophy texts can get him out of this mess and back to the lecture halls of Brown. The film’s biggest flaw: If he’s a professor, how could he be so dumb?

Despite the implausible plot and a series of snafus that almost doom both brothers, a smidgen of interest grows as Bill and Brady are reunited, an oddball chemistry builds and Bill’s orderly life unravels. But director Nelson, a cornball actor at best, is over the top as a larcenous Pa Kettle of a redneck sidekick, and Keri Russell is totally wasted as a love interest for Bill; her role seems like an afterthought. She’s the one who quotes Walt Whitman, “because it has no rhyme or meter,” while she’s gutting a 40-pound catfish. Mr. Nelson, a native of Tulsa, tries to bring some homespun, snuff-spitting, Tobacco Road ambience to the Oklahoma hick-town settings, but aside from the frenetic pacing and the fascination of watching the skillful Edward Norton juggle too very different dual roles simultaneously, there isn’t much fun or originality to be experienced here. The film also contains some shocking, blood-splattering violence that seems grimly at odds with the rest of its comic style. The mirror-has-two-faces-idea is nothing new. From Bette Davis in Dead Ringer to Sam Rockwell in Moon, dozens of seasoned actors have lit each other’s cigarettes while the audience thinks it’s seeing double, and they’ve done it in much better pictures than this one. In Leaves of Grass, it seems irrelevant and recycled—essentially nothing more than a gimmick that wears out fast.

rreed@observer.com