Watching "Leaves of Grass," a funny, intricate pinwheel of a movie about a classics professor and his marijuana-growing twin, you get caught up in the joy that Edward Norton had playing both these roles. Norton sparks writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's whole inspired ensemble — including Nelson himself, who plays the pot farmer's partner.
Making sure to cram a press call in right before he interviewed Bruce Springsteen on Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival, Norton said he cottoned to Nelson's script "because I thought it was very original and I laughed a lot when I read it."
It's a thinking man's — and feeling man's — " Pineapple Express." This wildly inventive piece of hip Americana, which opens today at the Charles, zigs from Bill Kincaid's classroom at Brown University to a pocket of Oklahoma where the professor's brilliant twin, Brady, uses hydroponics to grow dynamite weed.
Nelson has said that when he envisioned the double role, he could imagine no one but Norton playing it. When asked why, Norton said, "Well, it's hard for me to comment on myself. But I think Tim felt that I could straddle those worlds."
The worlds of academia and potheads?
"Let's say, Southern acid rock and down-home countrified humor."
For most actors, each role would have been a challenge. Right at the start, Bill Kincaid states the theme — the battle between rampant instinct and control — in an erudite lecture about Socrates. Then he spends the rest of the film hilariously embodying the conflict. It's hard to imagine another performer pulling off Bill's reflexive, fluent self-consciousness. Norton is super at expressing Bill's superego.
Of course, to rouse this buttoned-up character's id, it helped to cast Keri Russell as a gorgeous high-school English teacher and poet, who ardently quotes Walt Whitman while she snares and guts catfish.
"She's terrific," Norton said. "And we cast a bunch of people who fit this movie like a glove," such as Susan Sarandon as the Kincaids' mom, who barely survived her '60s hedonism, and Richard Dreyfuss as a proud drug kingpin who is half-mensch, half-monster. "Dreyfuss just came in and killed this part."
It also helped that Norton understood his director's unique frame of reference. Nelson grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from Brown as a classics major. Norton said, "Because of Tim's fascination with classical philosophy and literature, nothing is by chance. He structured this similar to classical dramas in which there's a prologue that sets up what the story will be about."
Norton savored the opportunity to help Nelson make classic thought witty, sexy and thrilling, even in a lecture hall. But the star got his biggest kicks from moments when the black-sheep brother, Brady, one-ups his sibling. "I think Brady, as the movie intimates, is smarter than he sometimes lets on. I really enjoy the moments when Brady is very conscientiously winding his brother up a little bit, saying things like 'Heidegegger' when he knows full well who Heidegger was. One thing that really makes me smile is when Brady pretends he's hunting for a word like epistemology when he probably knows the Oxford English Dictionary definition of it. He gets Billy's goat."
Bill and Brady were going to look even more alike until Norton was flipping through a book and saw a picture of a relaxed, hand-cut Tom Petty circa 1997.
"I just started staring at it. I said I think Brady might have to go a little farther astray in his look than we were imagining. Yet the thing about twins is that, despite superficial differences, they are so much the same. The truth is, Brady is very much like Bill. Brady, too, is a classicist. He says, 'I don't go in for digital' — he has his own classical aesthetic. And with his pot-growing he's a purist. He has a Platonic ideal of pot."
But it's Bill who makes the movie so universal and accessible. "Bill is struggling to balance who he's become with where he's from. I think lots of people struggle with different sides of themselves. Tim just happened to take his own psyche and split it into two characters."