Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is the American Philosophical Journal's "New Face of Classical Thought", and about to land his own institute at the prestigious Ivy League Brown University. The movie opens at the close of one of his lectures:
"... the balance needed for a happy life is illusory. And as soon as in our gorgeously flawed human way we think that we've attained it we're pretending divinity and we're gonna crash."
No sooner is the philosophical seed for Leaves of Grass sown, than we're whisked to some truck-stop where Brady Kincaid (Edward Norton) is spelling out his own philosophical bent: "We don't deal in crystal meth ..." he tells the motley-crew squeezed round the plastic table, for this is the guy whose IQ is higher than his brother's, and has directed it towards building the "Taj Mahal to hydroponics", resulting in the best marijuana in Oklahoma.
The twins' mother (Susan Sarandon) has checked herself into some kind of retirement home, and wonders aloud to Brady if Bill will ever come back to see them again: "I think it's gonna take one of us dyin' to get him to come back down here...." Needless to say, Bill finds himself drawn back home, wrenched from his life of books, into a world he's spent the last 12 years escaping from.
Edward Norton is possibly perfect - long may he reign thus as brilliant and underrated. Few actors can boast such versatility, and pull it off so that the whole "twin thing" rises above being a gimmick. Backup is solid in the forms of Sarandon, drug baron Richard Dreyfuss, and director Tim Blake Nelson himself playing Brady's best pal Bolger. Keri Russell is bright (and underused!) as the would-be poet, cat-fish wrestler, love-interest, who recites Walt Whitman's "unashamed passion ... without definable restriction" that so seductively counters the discipline of Bill's existence.
The movie has, without doubt, every element of a cult classic in the making: superb acting; quirky plot; off-kilter characters; it should have been one of those movies that slips under the radar and gathers a post-cinema momentum by word of mouth. But, perhaps it doesn't quite know what it wants to be, unfavourable comparisons have been made with the Coen Brothers' style, and the movie's abrupt shifts in tone could be where the problem lies. The dark comedy of the first half is suddenly strongly violent in a way that throws the film out of balance, even as it sets up a surprising (and redeeming?) pathos.
Norton fans won't need any incentive to buy this movie, and those who like something a little off-the-beaten-track might just be charmed (as this reviewer has been) by this erratic offering.