A stuttering mash-up of drama and stoner comedy, Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass plays as a cross between the podunk classicism of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the spiritual vacuum-cum-autobiography of Midwestern Jewry of A Serious Man. Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton), philosophy professor at Brown and, soon, Harvard, teaches his students about the illusion of control and centered balance in life just before his own life proves his point. Identical twin Brady lures his brother back to their redneck home in Oklahoma by faking his death, only to trap the poor educator in a hare-brained scheme to get out of trouble with a major pot dealer in the Tulsa region (Richard Dreyfuss, who continues to look as if he's pissed off even to keep getting work).
Coenesque in conception but not execution, Leaves of Grass attempts to build a twisted comedy of errors as well as a philosophical treatise on issues of God, free will and fate, but it cannot reconcile its stiff gear shifts between moods and the fatal gaps in momentum that derail it constantly. Where A Serious Man built a thriller-like sense of dread from its comic severity and mounting sense of spiritual despair, Leaves of Grass attempts to do the same in reverse, saddling a conventional narrative with so much extra weight that the bridge collapses. Norton shines as the two brothers, giving a performance reminiscent of Nicolas Cage's in Adaptation, in that even when the brothers groom themselves to look alike for Brady's plan, you can instantly tell which brother is which without Norton uttering a word. A strong supporting cast buoys him, from the always-transfixing Keri Russell as the poetry-lovin' catfish wrangler who steal Bill's heart to Steve Earle as a half-joking rival dealer sour for being edged out by Brady's superior product (though less ambitious than his professorial brother, Brady supposedly has the higher IQ and used it to grow hyper-quality weed via hydroponics).
Nelson here falls back on his theatrical training, never making anything particularly cinematic. With the exception of scenes in cars, everything in the film looks as if it could have been a set design, even outdoor shots. A subplot involving a skittish, broken orthodontist (Josh Pais) works neither as comedy nor dramatic thread, and a lovesick coed who hounds an uncomfortable Bill with poems in Latin and threatens his potential promotion to Harvard might have worked as a tendril of the man's mounting pressures had all of the young woman's scenes not played out in tedious predictability. Of course she starts undressing in Bill's office, and if you think that door isn't going to be opened at the worst time, then you made an odd choice for what is clearly the first film you have ever seen. Only rarely does anyone not project past the nonexistent proscenium, such as a tender, believable moment when Bill drunkenly hits on Russell's Janet in that awkward manner that suggests he's not only rusty at picking up chicks but is interested in more than sex.
Nelson appears to have a chip on his shoulder about growing up in Tulsa and looking like a redneck while trying to prove himself as a learned literature freak and Shakespearean thespian -- a frustration with which I can empathize. That makes Whitman his ideal conduit, the poet's original cover for his own Leaves of Grass displaying merely his rugged portrait that belied the beauty within, but Nelson gets caught up in the plot over the mood. A shaggy dog jokes only works if you can control the audience's interest, setting up the joke for so long that the crowd loses interest only to climb back on board when the monologue continues and people commit to hearing the end of it. Nelson doesn't have the Coens' ability to string along an audience, and the punchline is less a dark, anti-climatic punch than a mere caesura that, like the end of a verse in Walt Whitman's rule-breaking poetry, indicates that the proceedings are over simply because the characters stop speaking.
Still, it's got a goofy charm at times. For all its flaws, stop-starts and misjudged laughs, Leaves of Grass certainly doesn't make me think of a host of other films to compare it to, save for the Coen brothers, and they're not bad role models when it comes to anti-comedy. Nelson was supposedly the only person to have actually read Homer's The Odyssey during the production of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and he strives for a greater respect of the arts in his vision of that fine line that separates suburbia from rural backwoods in states with few cities. Besides, how many stoner movies are structured as treatises on Socratic dialogue?