★ ★ 1/2
In Leaves of Grass, Ed Norton plays a pair of twins, a highly renowned professor, and an Oklahoman drug dealer. Sounds like a cheasy mid-90s buddy comedy. Rather than a facile comedy of errors leaning heavily upon the physical similarities of the characters, it aimed for smart black comedy. Unfortunately it was pedantic more often than insightful. It didn't live up to the cast, let alone the subject matter.
Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown who is summoned back to his home town in Oklahoma by the death of his brother. When he arrives, he learns that it was a lie to get him back to help his brother out of a fix. Brady (also Norton) is a small time drug dealer who owes money to a Jewish money lender (Dreyfuss). Bill quickly realizes he has no choice but to help Brady. He is also faced with the unseemly prospect of visiting his mother, whom he had avoided for more than a decade. While there, Bill meets a young English teacher (Janet, played by Russell). Bill is a hyper rationalistic philosopher. He knows he should leave, but he can't seem to go.
The film's title was taken from Walt Whitman's famous volume of poems, which played the role of social lubricant between Bill and Janet. They discussed aethetics, careers, familial obligations--it wasn't overbearing, but it was never as interesting as the subject matter would suggest. While this subplot seemed fairly genuine, I can't say the same about the main narrative thrust. The drug dealing plot was sometimes funny, but often absurd, relying on implausible coincidences.
While Norton and Russell put in solid roles, the rest of the cast was uneven. Dreyfuss' first shaking money grubbing character just wasn't that funny. Tim Nelson wrote in way too many Jewish stereotypes and cliches into this part. None of his henchmen were interesting either. Susan Sarandon seemed surprisingly realistic as the irresponsible new age mother, but her role was limited. Familial obligation was one of the central themes of the movie, and Sarandon's performance was edifying.
If you're interested in philosophy and poetry, you may enjoy Leaves of Grass. There are major structural problems with the movie, but there are a few thoughtful scenes that make it worth a watch.