The story behind the theatrical release of Leaves of Grass, a woolly dark comedy starring Edward Norton as a pair of polar-opposite twins, is its own comedy of errors. The film was set for a sort of last-resort for-posterity release on April 2, only to be acquired at the 11th hour by a new distributor, Telepathic Studios, that pledged to give the star vehicle a much wider opening. This change was so last-minute that Norton had to cancel already-scheduled late-night-TV appearances, and New York magazine and The Village Voice had already gone to press with reviews before the sudden yanking of the film. When Leaves of Grass finally did open last month in limited release, it might have occasioned an acute case of buyer's remorse at Telepathic: The film's domestic gross stands well below the $100,000 mark.
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This is not to suggest that Leaves of Grass arrives this week on home video with full diamond-in-the-rough status. It's too heavy on the quirk and too crammed with frantic incident to cohere as a satisfying whole. But this is another appealingly ambitious, unpretentiously intellectualized mash-up from writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, whose O (2001) set Othello against a backdrop of modern-day high-school basketball and whose harrowing Grey Zone (2001) considered the moral dilemmas of Auschwitz's Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners charged with keeping the camp's crematoria in working order. Much less dour in mood than these other films, Leaves of Grass—which gets its title from both weed and Walt Whitman, whose barbaric yawping informs the film's shaggy free-verse structure—bears the roll-with-the-punches geniality of some of Nelson's most memorable work as a character actor (he played the outlaw rube Delmar in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Nelson, who also performs in Leaves of Grass in a sidekick role, begins his new film with rather by-the-numbers madcap comic scenes of mistaken identity and fish-out-of-water incongruities before spiraling outward into altogether less-predictable territory. Ivy League classical philosophy professor Bill Kincaid (Norton), a golden boy to his peers and a heartthrob to his students, is summoned home to small-town Oklahoma when he learns his estranged pot-dealing twin, Brady (Norton), was murdered with a crossbow ("They're inexplicably popular where I'm from," he tells a nosy department administrator). Before long, Bill realizes Brady is alive and well, and just trying to finagle a few days of brotherly togetherness—and enlist his help in a massive drug deal. The differences between Bill and Brady are perhaps best summed up by their sartorial choices: The latter wears a sweater vest; the former lets his long hair fall to the shoulders of a T-shirt with blue iron-on lettering that reads "Baby you're in for a treat." Bill lives for parsing Socrates and Lacan, Brady for perfecting the science of hydroponics, but the big recurring joke here is that the unreconstructed hick has a higher IQ than his ivory-tower-dwelling brother.