Call it dramaturgy by documentary. In Bright Leaves, filmmaker Ross McElwee (Sherman's March, Six O'Clock News) explores the possibility that his great-grandfather may have been the inspiration for Bright Leaf, a 1950 drama that cast Gary Cooper as a tobacco-industry maverick with a score to settle. Like Cooper's character, Brant Royle, McElwee's ancestor ran afoul of a powerful business competitor in real life, James Buchanan Duke, the North Carolina entrepreneur who allegedly stole his Bull Durham blend of cigarettes right out from under the elder McElwee's nose. Tipped to the similarity between fact and fiction by a movie-buff relative, Ross McElwee sets out to determine if his family's tale of betrayal indeed influenced the otherwise undistinguished Cooper picture.
Some 90 minutes later, he finally gets around to answering the question. Why it takes so long has something to do with unexpected complications I won't spoil, but it's also due to McElwee's propensity to dance around a subject in ways that are alternately entertaining and superfluous. We're right there with him when his search leads him to a cadre of colorful Southern characters with personalities as rich as their drawls; as long as the company is good, who cares that the expedition is getting lost on the side roads? But too often, the movie degenerates into a long-winded diatribe against the habit of smoking in general: McElwee belabors the irony of how hypocritical he is in resenting that his clan was cheated out of a "legacy" that's built on lung cancer. After the third or so biography of a hopeless addict, we begin to wonder if we've been sold a high-tar Super Size Me under the pretense of a historical inquiry.
Still, McElwee's sly narration and eye for human oddity put him more in the league of a Michael Moore than a Morgan Spurlock. (An interview with an assiduously amoral tobacco-parade queen is practically identical to Moore's encounter with Miss Michigan, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, in Roger & Me.) In the end, McElwee locates his family's true place in the tobacco hall of fame (or is it shame?) even if he overestimates how many leaves he needs to turn over to find it.
(Opens Friday, Nov. 12, at D.MAC)