A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
McElwee is a great-grandson of John McElwee, who patented the famous line of Bull Durham tobacco. John McElwee and Washington Duke, founder of the Duke dynasty, were rivals at the birth of the modern tobacco industry, and Duke essentially destroyed McElwee (whose warehouse was burned down three times by suspicious fires). The Dukes went on to found Duke University. Three generations of John McElwee's descendants became doctors, and Ross became a documentarian who films introspective essays about his life.
"Bright Leaves" is not a documentary about anything in particular. That is its charm. It's a meandering visit by a curious man with a quiet sense of humor, who pokes here and there in his family history, and the history of tobacco. The title refers to the particular beauty of tobacco leaves, both in the fields and after they have been cured, and perhaps also to the leaves of his family's history.
McElwee's odyssey begins with a second cousin, a fanatic film buff, who is convinced that "Bright Leaf," a 1950 movie starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, was inspired by the rivalry of Washington Duke and John McElwee. There do seem to be a lot of parallels in its story of the triumph of one family over another. McElwee interviews Patricia Neal, who knows nothing about the origins of the story, but does helpfully volunteer that Cooper was "the love of my life." Then he tracks down Marian FitzSimmons, the widow of the screenwriter, who assures him her husband did not have real people in mind.
Well, maybe not, but the parallels are uncanny. Unwilling to entirely let go of his notion, McElwee wanders about the area where he grew up, remembering that his childhood home, while large and comfortable, was known as the "Duke's outhouse." He ruminates on the addiction of smoking, which he has given up while still understanding its appeal. He chats with five beauty school students as they puff away on the sidewalk outside their classes, and with a couple who give him their deadlines for stopping smoking: When they get married, after the millennium, whenever. He also visits people who are dying of cigarette-related illnesses, but he doesn't preach about the evils of tobacco; it's more that he regrets that such a beautiful plant, which produces so much pleasure, should be lethal. Think how happy it would make so many people if smoking were good for you.