It's rare that you see five films in a day at a film festival and hit all good ones. But as I settled in to Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass Monday night in Toronto - my fifth and final film of the day - I thought I might have a shot at it.
No such luck. After an amusing and promising first half, Nelson's philosophical stoner comedy suddenly took a wrong turn and never recovered. You hate to see that happen, particularly when you're enjoying the film - and then it just kind of collapses in a heap, like a jalopy under Laurel and Hardy.
Leaves of Grass certainly starts with audacious energy, referencing everything from Plato and Walt Whitman to John Prine and Little Feat. It's constructed like a farce, built around a pair of estranged twin brothers - both played by Edward Norton - who reunite in Oklahoma for a wild weekend scheme that one convinces the other to be part of. Growing pot, Jews in Oklahoma and noodling for catfish (if you don't know what that is, type that phrase into YouTube) are just the beginning of the fun.
The set-up is there for all sorts of mistaken identity twists with erudite and cross-cultural jokes, but smart and with heart. Then suddenly Nelson detours into bloody, irreversible violence that lets all the air out of the film, stripping it of the comedy and turning deadly serious in a deadening way. It's a shocking miscalculation, and the film can never right itself.
Until that point, it had been a surprisingly strong day, beginning with The Joneses, an intelligent and sneaky comedy about suburban life and the need to keep up with the neighbors - the titular family - in the latest consumer goods and the lifestyle that they symbolize.
The family of the title is led by David Duchovny and Demi Moore, who have two teen-age kids (Ben Hollingsworth and Amber Heard). They move into an upscale Atlanta suburb and, just like that, become the most popular folks in town. They drive the coolest cars, wear the latest fashions - you get the picture. Everyone wants to be like them - which means owning all the same brand-name merchandise that the Joneses have.
The twist - and there is a definite twist - is inventive; these folks are not who they seem to be and that's all I'll say. Put it this way: First-time writer-director Derrick Borte keeps things loose but finds just the right ways to help bring down this house of cards, while spoofing contemporary acquisitiveness and its effect on self-esteem. Moore and Duchovny have an interestingly prickly chemistry and this film could be a sleeper.
Youth in Revolt is yet another comedy about a high-school kid losing his virginity - but with a difference. The old trope gets a witty, complex reworking by filmmaker Miguel Arteta, working from a novel by C.D. Payne. Their secret weapon: Michael Cera, who makes the film's central character, Nick Twisp, into almost a Dickensian hero, battling his way through a complex world of unpredictable turns and daunting characters.
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