William (2019)


So simple even a caveman could do it?

(2019) Drama (Dada) Will Brittain, Maria Dizzia, Waleed Zuaiter, Susan Park, Beth Grant, Callum Seagram Airlie, Krystle Dos Santos, Kevin Dzah, Stefania Indelicato, Jaren Moore, Ellie Harvie, David Nykl, Nisreen Slim, Christian Convery, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Sydney Bell, Finn Haney, Michael Meneer, Kurt Ostlund, Iris Paluly, Lisa MacFadden. Directed by Tim Disney

 

Neanderthals occupy an interesting place in pop culture. On the one hand, they are our ancestors; we evolved from them and then eventually wiped them out (or out-survived them). On the other hand, they are portrayed as both stupid (“So easy even a caveman could do it”) and brutish, normally portrayed as being possessed of enormous strength and aggressiveness. In truth however, we really don’t know very much about them.

Paleontologist Julian Reed (Zuaiter) would very much like to change that. He dreams of coming face to face with a Neanderthal, particularly after a colleague (Grant) of his at Wallace University where he teaches discovered a nearly-perfectly preserved body in a Pacific Northwest bog not far from the University. Bio-engineer Barbara Sullivan (Dizzia), attending one of Julian’s impassioned lectures on the subject, thinks she can make it happen by cloning a Neanderthal using DNA from the remains of the Neanderthal. The two find common ground and eventually get married.

As for cloning the Neanderthal, the University brass reacts with horror. It’s not just a no but a Hell, no! Being the maverick scientific power couple that they are, they decide to do it anyway, using one of Barbara’s eggs as an embryo. By the time the university finds out, the deed is already done and a baby – named William, after Irish naturalist William King who was the first to identify Neanderthals as a separate species – and the university has no choice but to support the two scientists after the fact.

Barbara and Julian develop a deep rift in their relationship on how William’s upbringing should be handled. Julian wants to keep the boy at the University where he can be closely monitored, whereas Barbara, once the gung-ho maverick, has turned all mom on him and demands the boy be raised in an environment where he has a shot at a normal life which in retrospect doesn’t seem terribly realistic because there’s no way other children are going to let up on a completely different species. William mostly tolerates the abuse although from time to time when cornered he does show an ability to more than adequately defend himself.

William also has trouble with literary interpretation, particularly when it comes to humor and metaphors. Think of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy who didn’t understand anything in other than a literal sense. William is that, only more soft-spoken and less blue. William is in all ways polite and brilliant but his shortcoming in this one department threatens to derail his plans for college – or perhaps more his dad’s plans. Also, William is getting a little tired of other people making decisions about what’s best for him.

While this sounds like soft sci-fi along the lines of Creator or Encino Man, this is more of a coming-of-age drama with some light science fiction overtones. This is not so much about the creation of William but of the practical ramifications of creating him. Given that some scientists believe that we’ll have the ability to clone dinosaurs by the end of the next decade, the immortal line “They were so busy trying to figure out if they could they never bothered asking themselves if they should” from Jurassic Park immediately comes to mind. The premise is an interesting one and it is handled in an unexpected way which is reason enough to recommend it right there.

Brittain does a great job of making William sympathetic and alien at the same time. He’s just like us, only he’s not. There is a universal truth hiding in that statement; that truth is that we’re all under that category. I don’t know if that was a message Disney meant to send but it was one I read loud and clear all the same.

Cinematographers Graham and Nelson Talbot utilize the Pacific Northwest setting nicely and some of the shot compositions should be used as teaching tools in film school. The negative here (and it’s a big one) is that the ending is completely tone-deaf with the rest of the film. Disney went out of his way to approach the subject in a unique way and then just about wipes out the good will of the audience by tacking on a cliché ending. The ending is an easy one that has the advantage of tying things up neatly more or less but it is almost like it came out of another movie – and not a better one.

Despite the disappointment of the film’s ending this is still that rarity – an intelligent movie with an intriguing premise that never talks down to its viewers (until the last ten minutes) and generally takes the road that isn’t easy or safe. I only wish that Disney had the faith in his own project to give us an ending that didn’t feel so out of tune with the rest of the film.

REASONS TO SEE: The premise is interesting. I liked the shot composition going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a bit of violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim Disney is Walt’s grand-nephew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
One Child Nation

Advertisements

An Acceptable Loss


Tika Sumpter speaks truth to power.

(2018) Thriller (IFC) Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, David Eisenberg, Alysia Reiner, Rex Linn, Carmen Roman, Henry Godinez, Tim Hopper, Rashaad Hall, Troy West, José Antonio Garcia, Peggy Roeder, Jin You, Patrick Mulvey, Jack Ball, Bella Wholey, Brittany Baker. Directed by Joe Chappelle

 

In this modern age, the government has thorny problems to wrestle with. How to deal with a threat which defies national boundaries but is just as deadly to its citizens as an attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. How does a nation react to terrorism without becoming terrorists themselves?

Libby Lamm (Sumpter) is part of an administration that had to face that question but her boss Vice-President Rachel Burke (Curtis) had no qualms about the answer. It has made Libby a social pariah, as her recommendation to the President (Linn) in her capacity as a security adviser led to a tragedy of 9-11 proportions. Libby is now in the academic sector, teaching an inflammatory political science course amid campus protests and drunken confrontations by self-righteous faculty members demanding to know how many people she killed.

Libby has chosen to write a book on her experiences, a book that the new regime, now led by the former Vice-President, desperately wants to see quashed. Libby, the daughter of a respected newspaper editor (Peters), is feeling a tremendous load of guilt and needs to write this book and have people read it in order to make some sort of emotional catharsis for herself. President Burke has sent oily Chief of Staff Adrian (Hephner), not coincidentally an ex-lover of Libby’s, to reason with her and bring her back into the fold but Libby is having none of it.

In the meantime creepy grad student Martin (Tavassoli) is breaking into Libby’s home and planting cameras in addition to stalking her in a way that says “terrorist” although in one of a series of plot twists we see that he’s much too academic for mere violence. In fact this whole movie is an endless series of plot twists, signifying nothing.

As potboilers go this one has its moments, particularly when Curtis is onscreen. There is an interesting concept in that Sumpter’s character is essentially a young Condoleezza Rice crossed with Jack Ryan which ought to be a delight for conservative moviegoers except that the rest of the film is essentially an indictment of conservative policies in the middle east which will no doubt get some eyes to rolling.

Chappelle and cinematographer Petra Korner seem to have made the conscious decision to overexpose the film, giving everything a nearly colorless, washed-out look. The effect is like watching a movie with your eyes dilated. I’m not so sure what prompted the look but it gets annoying after a while.

For the most part the acting is solid with Curtis setting the bar higher for everyone. She’s truly exceptional here, steely and completely sure of herself. She is confident in her beliefs and is quite frankly willing to do anything to support them and I do mean anything. She’s a cross between Dick Cheyney and…well, Dick Cheyney without the annoying heart condition. Her absolute certainty in her position puts Rachel above any moral concerns; it allows her to sleep at night knowing that anything done in service to her country is intrinsically the right thing to do, regardless of he consequences. It does bother me however that while Libby is considered a pariah as architect of the policy, the chief proponent of it (Burke) was elected President. The two don’t seem to add up logically.

The film suffers from a fairly bland script that utilizes a whole lot of dramatic reveals that don’t deserve the fanfare they’re given. The movie could have gone two ways – it could have been a standard direct-to-home video mindless thriller or it could have been a serious drama about how those in the corridors of power cope with their decisions when their decisions cost lives. Chappelle opts to go both routes which was too bad; the second half of the film which was the standard thriller is almost disappointing compared to the first half, the political drama which had a lot more potential. That’s a movie I really would have liked to see had they continued down that route.

REASONS TO GO: The film is a reasonably well-constructed thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The colors are washed out throughout, looking like a drab attempt at noir or a bad day at the development lab..
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappelle also directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curtis starred in four films in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Adult Life Skills

Tallulah


A short walk on a long pier.

A short walk on a long pier.

(2016) Drama (Netflix) Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Felix Solis, Uzo Aduba, Fredric Lehne, Liliana/Evangeline Ellis, John Benjamin Hickey, Zachary Quinto, Maddie Corman, Tommar Wilson, J. Oscar Simmons, Charlotte Ubben, Olivia Levine, Jason Tottenham, Todd Alan Crain, Chanel Jenkins, Stacey Thunder, Jasson Finney. Directed by Sian Heder

 

Motherhood is one of the most primal of all human urges. There is no doubt that it changes a woman, not just in a physical sense (which it does) but also in her perspective, in how she sees the world. Some say that every woman becomes a great mother, but that simply isn’t so. Some women were flat-out not made to be mothers.

Lu (Page) has been living on her own, homeless and content to be. She doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone – although she seems pretty smitten with her boyfriend Nico (Jonigkeit). However, he isn’t terribly smitten with the lifestyle of stealing and conning to survive and eventually takes a powder. Knowing that he is headed to New York City to find his estranged mom, she follows him there. Since she’s in a van and he’s on foot, she gets there first.

Margo (Janney) is Nico’s mom and she’s bitter ever since her husband Stephen (Hickey) deserted her – for another man, in this case Andreas (Quinto). Because Margo is living in faculty housing and it’s Stephen who is actually the faculty, she has to pretend like he’s still there, a fiction that has kept her in a place to live even though she hates the artwork on the walls and feels trapped in a place that she doesn’t particularly like.

When Lu turns up at her door, she’s at first dismissive but at she realizes that Lu is the only connection she has to her son so when Margo sees the doorman Manuel (Solis) she instructs him to send the waif back up the next time she drops by. And she drop by she does, only this time in the company of a baby (Ellis).

You see, while Lu was at a posh hotel taking leftover food from room service trays, she was spotted by Carolyn (Blanchard), a Real Housewives type. Mistaking Lu for hotel staff, she has her babysit her baby while she goes out and parties with a man who she is most definitely not married to. When she comes back to the hotel room and passes out dead drunk, Lu realizes Carolyn is not a fit mother. Rather than contact the authorities, she impulsively takes the baby herself for her own.

On the Margo front, Lu passes off the baby as Margo’s granddaughter and suddenly the two women are bonding, not just over the shared genetic material but also over motherhood itself. Margo realizes she wasn’t mother of the year – neither was Lu’s mom, who essentially abandoned her – but she has a chance to redeem herself for the mistakes she made with her son. The police however are closing in and Lu doesn’t sense the tightening net around her.

Heder, one of the writers of Netflix’ hit Orange is the New Black series, has a keen eye for women’s issues and what could be a more important one than motherhood? Well, at least that’s the way society makes it out to be. A woman is more than her ovaries and this is a movie that makes a case that being a great mom is not all there is to life.

In fact, the three main female characters are none of them great moms. The closest one to it is Lu, who stole her baby which is certainly one of the most unforgivable crimes in our culture. That she took it from a woman patently unfit to be a mother, who didn’t want to be a mother, who endangered her child’s welfare and seemingly her life was not necessarily the issue, or at least I didn’t think so.

Margo had devoted her life to Nico, particularly after she and Stephen broken up but her bitterness and betrayal colored that relationship as well. It wasn’t until after she met Lu that she was able to let go and be free of her self-imposed burdens, which is a theme in the movie symbolized by both of the two main female characters imagining they are floating away from earth, no longer tethered by gravity. With Lu it’s a dream at the beginning of the film; with Margo a daydream at the end.

I’ve never been an over-the-top Ellen Page fan, although I recognize that she is an extremely talented actress and I can relate to her on that point. However, the characters she chooses to play are often a bit too strident for my liking and often a bit too offbeat from time to time. Lu lives by her own rules; in some ways, she is as self-centered a character as Page has ever portrayed. There are those who will characterize this as kind of the logical continuation of Juno, the title character that launched her career, a pregnant teen. I don’t really see it that way though; Lu is nothing like Juno.

One of the objections I had to the script was that Lu has been set up to be something of an individualist. She wants relationships to be on her terms, in fact life itself is lived on her own terms. Her action of impulsively stealing the baby just seems to be so out of left field in that sense; someone who is as irresponsible as Lu is suddenly decides to take on the biggest responsibility of them all? It didn’t make sense when I saw it and I imagine that it could be written off as the impetuousness of youth – but that’s some bad writing.

While I enjoyed the performance of Allison Janney immensely, at the end of the day this seems to be a missed opportunity more than anything. We rarely get to see mothers portrayed as anything but saints and sacrificers and that is largely true of most moms, but we don’t always get to see the other side of it – the loss of identity, the absolute panic of not knowing what to do when your baby won’t stop crying, the exhaustion and the mistakes. Any mom will tell you that she made her share of foul-ups and sometimes things that she’s done that she wishes she hadn’t. I don’t think Heder was really certain as to whether she was writing a treatise on motherhood or finding freedom as a woman, and in a sense she tried to do both and ended up doing neither. I didn’t see anything here that really gave me any insight into the characters that I couldn’t have figured out by watching the Lifetime network for an hour or two.

REASONS TO GO: Janney is as solid as she always is.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points don’t seem too organic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds; there are also plenty of adult themes, some drinking and drug use, sexual situations and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Allison Janney and Ellen Page are in the same movie for the third time, after Juno and Touchy Feely.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Der Bunker

Admission


Two people who know just how cute they are.

Two people who know just how cute they are.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, Michael Genadry, Christopher Evan Welch, Sarita Choudhury, Rob Campbell, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa, Travaris Spears, Camille Branton. Directed by Paul Weitz

Getting into a good school can make all the difference in life. Princeton University, as one of the best schools in the nation, has to rigorously check potential students, culling out the wheat to get to the chaff. Looking for the best and the brightest isn’t always easy.

Portia Nathan (Fey), as one of Princeton’s top admissions officers, has that unenviable task. The simple math is that there are far more applicants than there are open spots so much of what she does is telling young students that their application has been declined.

This year it’s particularly vital because the director of admissions (Shawn) is stepping down at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to go out as number two, which Princeton has fallen to for the first time in years. His position will go to either Portia or Corinne (Reuben), her supercilious rival. Portia, whose territory is the northeast, is given the directive to find some new blood from schools not normally associated with Princeton.

Then she gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), a former classmate at Dartmouth with Portia who knew her roommate well. He’s got a progressive school called Quest Academy in New Hampshire and has a student he’s particularly high on that might make a nice addition to Princeton’s student body. He invites her to talk to the student body about the advantages of going to Princeton. Oh and by the way, the student in question – Jeremiah (Wolff) – may possibly be the child she gave up for adoption just after she graduated from college. Whoops.

Of course now this puts her maternal instincts on overdrive and her impartiality on vacation. In the meantime her personal life is in chaos as her longtime boyfriend (Sheen) has dumped her for a bitchy English professor (Walger) and her relationship with her goofy feminist mom (Tomlin) is pinballing around her life like a pachinko machine gone berserk. On top of that John is looking kinda cute and sexy, even though she tells herself she wants no part of him. Which of course means she does.

 

Weitz, who’s made some pretty nifty pictures in his time (including About a Boy and American Dreamz) doesn’t quite have that kind of material here. This is, to be honest, a pretty pedestrian story, full of your basic romantic comedy clichés. Fortunately, that’s not all it is – there’s a bit of satire on the higher education system and how cutthroat it has become. There’s also something about embracing the differences, and understanding that people are more than the sum of their parts.

Fey and Rudd make appealing leads and that should come to nobody’s surprise – they are two of the most likable actors in Hollywood. They are not only an attractive couple, they play off of each other well. Both of them are pretty low-key however; there is nothing frenetic here and so the movie has a curiously muted feel. I suspect Weitz didn’t want to play this strictly for comedy (despite casting comedic actors in nearly every role) and wanted a dramatic edge to it but it winds up really settling into a middle ground that is neither funny nor dramatic.

Tomlin makes the movie worth seeing alone. One of the greatest comedians of all time (male or female), she infuses Susannah with just enough grouchiness to be funny, but just enough tenderness to give her the potential for redemption. Tomlin is definitely the comedic highlight here, which I’m sure that Fey as a longtime admirer doesn’t mind.

I actually liked the movie overall – but I didn’t love it (obviously). I wish it had been written a little bit better – perhaps Fey, one of the better writers working today, should have had a hand in it. Having not read the novel that is the source material, I can’t say for certain whether the fault lies in the source material or the adaptation but either way the plot is far too predictable – one of the main twists was predicted by Da Queen early in the movie and not to say that Da Queen isn’t a savvy moviegoer (she is) but it shouldn’t have been that easy for anyone to get it. With the summer blockbusters just a month away from the theaters, this is probably easy to overlook and is just as viable a choice for home viewing as anything else out there.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Fey and Rudd. Pleasant and charming in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Lacks big laughs. Is curiously lacking in energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of language and some sexuality but not a lot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While some of the scenes were shot on the campus of Princeton, more of it was shot at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100; the reviews are mixed, trending a teensy bit to the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanderlust

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Burning Plain

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards

Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.