The Journey and Repairing the World

I had really hoped that I might write this week about Emilio Estevez’ spiritual-journey film The Way; instead, I find myself responding to a movie about pot.

As I am in the position of recommending films to my students, I often receive suggestions from my students, too.  Now, I try to be cautious about watching films recommended to me by high-schoolers, and I was certainly wary about this one: Leaves of Grass.

This 2009 comedy, directed by Tim Blake Nelson (perhaps most memorable as Delmar in the Coen Brothers’ epic O Brother Where Art Thou?), tells the tale of twin brothers, separated not at birth but by vocation, education, and a lot of miles.  Their strained relationship plays out in a tale of academia, deception, death, mistaken identity, and pharmaceutical horticulture.

Edward Norton plays both brothers, Bill steeped in his role as a professor of the classics at Brown, Brady refining the science of growing marijuana for distribution throughout the stereotyped crossbow-carrying backwoods of Oklahoma.  Pug Rothbaum, the synagogue-attending leader of the local drug cartel (played by a smarmy Richard Dreyfus) pushes the drug-dealing Brady to expand his drug trade to pay off the debt he owes, so Brady schemes to bring Bill into town to unwittingly aid in providing an alibi (they do look alike, after all).  But like all mistaken identity stories and grand schemes, the illusion falls apart and brings trouble to the schemer.

Near the end of the film, as Bill confesses to Rothbaum’s Rabbi in his brother’s stead, Bill struggles with why these things happen. Unlike the Rabbis of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Rabbi Zimmerman is helpful (or at least certain).  The Rabbi responds that “we are animals … with brains that trick us into thinking that we are not.”  “All of us: you, me, your brother, Pug; we break the world,” and she commends Bill to repair it.

Perhaps Leaves of Grass and The Way are more similar than I had initially considered.  Bill’s journey of reconciling with his brother and repairing the world might not be too far different from Emilio Estevez’ film about a journey with a subtext involving drugs, deception, and a brother’s restoration.

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