Bright Leaves (2004)



Critic Consensus: A rich, eccentric documentary about both filmmaking and the tobacco industry.

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American filmmaker Ross McElwee travels to his home state of North Carolina for the humorous documentary Bright Leaves. In his trademarked rambling style, McElwee lightly questions his family's role in the tobacco industry. Following the Civil War, his great-grandfather John McElwee had a hand in creating the tobacco company Bull Durham, but lost his fortune to business partner Washington Duke in a lawsuit. In order to find out if his grandfather inspired Gary Cooper's character in the 1950 film Bright Leaf, McElwee travels around the tobacco-rich state to places like the Duke mansion, the Double Take Film Festival, and the annual crowning of Miss Tobacco. The documentary includes commentary from film star Patricia Neal and film historian Vlada Petric, along with personal stories about the pleasures and pains of smoking. Bright Leaves was shown at the2003 Cannes Film Festival.
Documentary , Special Interest
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Critic Reviews for Bright Leaves

All Critics (57) | Top Critics (25)

Bright Leaves is not the kind of film that would use in its anti-smoking campaign.

Full Review… | April 28, 2005
Dallas Morning News
Top Critic

A gently provocative film diary about tobacco and its mixed legacy.

February 11, 2005
Philadelphia Inquirer
Top Critic

Bright Leaves is a beguiling film. Watching it is like spending time with an old, somewhat chatty but endearing friend.

December 3, 2004
Chicago Tribune
Top Critic

McElwee's best film since Sherman's March.

Full Review… | December 3, 2004
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

It's a meandering visit by a curious man with a quiet sense of humor.

Full Review… | December 3, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

McElwee's autobiographical films ... are leisurely jaunts with a gentle humor that never mocks his subjects.

Full Review… | December 2, 2004
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Bright Leaves

Self-indulgent and overwhelmed by grating narration, but with the occasional addition of a small, interesting historical fact.

Yva Swenson
Yva Swenson

Fascinating, free-form documentary by SHERMAN'S MARCH filmmaker Ross McElwee. Dude is definitely becoming one of my favorite documentarians. He's like Errol Morris with a heart.

Jason Alley
Jason Alley

Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) documents his trip back to his roots in North Carolina, where he endeavors to uncover the truth about his great grandfather, who was rumored to have created the Bull Durham tobacco blend, only to have the formula stolen from him by cigarette tycoon James "Buck" Duke. At the same time, McElwee ponders the disreputable legacy that people like his great grandfather has left for our generation. Like most of McElwee's documentaries, Bright Leaves is highly personal. I think his internal journey typically trumps any instructive or educational value his movies might impart. In other words, he's filming anyway...he might as well make a documentary. This attitude hasn't hurt the product; his movies are entertaining and thought provoking. With Bright Leaves...not so much. He hammers home three main ideas. 1) His family was robbed of a vast tobacco fortune. 2) People who work in the tobacco industry typically construct moral double-standards in order to live with themselves. 3) Smokers are addicted to cigarettes. In the past, McElwee would have insured that these observations carried equal doses of humor and catharsis. In Bright Leaves, he nails the catharsis, but forgets the humor, not unlike a whiny child whose ice-cream cone has just hit the asphalt. At least two of his points seem so axiomatic, I wonder why he needs to cover them. Oh, well, at least he also gives us generous portions of his family's unique history. Despite my grousing about this particular movie, I hope McElwee continues to make documentaries, because I really do like his soft-shoe approach to filmmaking.

Craig Burgess
Craig Burgess

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