Monday, November 18, 2013
Directed by Alexander Payne
Bruce Dern is a seventy-three year old actor who's spent most of those years working consistently as a Hollywood character actor. He was at the peak of his powers in the 1970's, with bombastic performances in films like Coming Home (for which he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar) and Black Sunday. His version of Tom Buchanan is probably the only quality part of the otherwise droll 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. But he's spent most of his career as a relative unknown, especially these days, where his Oscar nomination is now forty-five years old. (Having just finished the documentary on actor John Cazale, I Knew It Was You, I realized the great parallels between Cazale and Dern - both terrific character actors. I wondered, had Cazale lived past 42 years, if he would've ever gotten his Nebraska). Alexander Payne's newest film, Nebraska, is the first time that Dern has been chosen to lead a picture. Staying true to his consistent professionalism, Dern delivers a perfect performance so evasive yet so incredibly intimate. The film also continues the consistent greatness of Payne, amongst America's best filmmakers, who crafts one of his best, most emotionally complex films to date.
Dern plays Woody Grant, a retired, alcoholic car mechanic convinced that he's won a million dollars when he receives a letter from a Mega Sweepstakes marketing company asking him to collect his winnings. Everyone in his family, including his wife Kate (June Squibb) and his youngest son David (Will Forte), knows that he hasn't actually won anything. His oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), angrily suggests that maybe it's time to put Woody in a home, and Kate, frustrated with the constant annoyances that Woody has brought throughout their marriage, agrees with Ross. The only family member who decides to humor Woody is David. David is equipped with his own set of problems. Approaching middle age, David works as a stereo salesman in an electronics store, and his longtime girlfriend (Missy Doty) has decided to leave him since their relationship had completely stagnated after two years. Should David had offered to marry her? He's not sure. To cope, he throws himself completely into the issues of his father.
The grips of senility slowly wrapping themselves around Woody, David begins to feel like time with his father is becoming more and more precious. Woody doesn't trust mailing in his letter to collect his million dollars; he'd rather travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where the headquarters of the marketing company is stationed. David decides to take a few days off of work to drive his father to Lincoln, seeing it as an opportunity to both squash Woody's pig-headed belief of winning a million dollars and indulge his father's obsession. Woody may not have a whole lot of time left, at least not as a functioning adult, so why not let him live out his fantasy? Woody and David hit the road, traveling through barren American land, making frequent stops, including Mount Rushmore. Eventually, they end up in the town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up and where he met Kate. David and Woody meet up with old friends and family, and when Woody has a drunken slip-up and accident, they end up having to stay in Hawthorne over the weekend.
A good majority of Nebraska takes place in Hawthorne, where Woody is suddenly confronted by family and friends hearing of his "winnings", not realizing how bogus those winnings happen to be. One of those friends is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a lumbering fellow and ex-business partner of Woody, who may or may not have stolen Woody's air compressor in the 70's. Two young, troublemaking nephews of Woody, Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray), learn about the supposed million dollars and almost instantly start thinking of ways to get it off of Woody's hands. David suddenly finds himself in the position of defending his fragile father against the circling vultures. David also manages to learn about his father's past, an image of a man much different and much more sensitive than the boozing man who raised him. As David and Woody try to weave through the all of the people trying to pick Woody's pocket, they continue forward to Lincoln, David hoping to end Woody's fantasy, and Woody trying to claim the prize he thinks he rightfully won.
Like all of Payne's films, the work of his actors is top priority, and he weaves an ensemble together better than most filmmakers today. The staging here is really something, placing Woody in the center of all of these people as a shell of the man he used to be; it's up to the supporting characters to really paint the picture of Woody Grant. Yet, Dern's withering performance so brilliantly confirms all of these characteristics that the others present. There's been some talk of Dern facing off against Redford at the Oscars, with Redford likely up for All is Lost (remember, Redford was the star of that '74 Gatsby). The movie star and the character from long ago both popping back up forty years later with career-defining performances. The performances are not really comparable. All is Lost places a movie star in a brilliant role, that sucks you in with its tale of mortality. What Dern does in Nebraska has nothing to do with matching the part to the star, it is a much simpler performance. Woody Grant doesn't say a whole lot, and the few times he does speak, most of what he says is inconsequential. But what Dern is able to convey in Woody's haggard visage, displaying his wandering mind behind broken eyes. It's great to see an actor as hard-working as Dern finally get a part so juicy, and to watch him hit it out of the park.
As Woody's sensitive, devoted son, Will Forte brings a depth that he'd never shown in previous projects like, say, MacGruber. Forte is a terrific comedic performer, with great work in the television shows 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, but his work in movies was mostly relegated to supporting fare in lowest-common-denominator comedy. It's fascinating what Payne saw in him to play David. Forte does have a face that translates sadness rather readily, and his sweet portrayal of the worried son is the film's only real moral center, which Forte capitalizes on. June Squibb, a veteran actress and Payne mainstay, delivers what is easily the film's funniest performance. As a sharp-tongued, nagging wife, unmoved by her husband's senility, Squibb's scene-stealing turn here is one that will be remembered. In a scene where she stands up to family members reaching to get into Woody's wallet, Squibb snags the attention of all viewers with her acerbic wit and cut-downs. Payne has always preferred actors with storytelling faces, The Descendants being the only time that he settled for beautiful Hollywood actors. Dern, Forte and Squibb all convey a funny, heartbreaking tale with just a glance, and Payne's staging of those faces is unparalleled.
Alexander Payne shot Nebraska in a very crisp black & white, with his usual cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, providing a very shallow depth of field which I can only assume is intentional. Nebraska is meant to look gritty, cheap and worn down, but it's also meant to be nostalgic, longing for the past in a way that's inherently sad but also natural. Payne's exquisite framing of these actors and these shots, along with Mark Orton's brilliantly tepid music score, crafts what is easily his most sentimental film to date, but I don't mean to say that it's sappy in any way. It's heartfelt and pure, his love for the characters obvious. There's a tenderness in this film that's not apparent in his previous work. The script, written by Bob Nelson, is the first one that Payne has produced on which he doesn't have writing credit. Yet, all of the Payne story stamps are there, plain as day. It is certainly amongst the best of his films, and that is already an impressive list. To say it's his best film since Sideways seems odd, cause he's only made one film in between that and this one, but it's definitely of Sideways quality. And it's also amongst the best of 2013.
Alexander Payne is amongst my favorite filmmakers, if that wasn't already made obvious earlier here. His first two films, Citizen Ruth and Election, were slight, cynical social satires. Then in the early 2000's, he made the two films, About Schmidt and Sideways, which were also two of the best films of that decade, filled with such an overwhelming combination of humanity and sardonic humor that it made Payne one of the most respected filmmakers in the business. He didn't follow up Sideways till 2011's The Descendants, which felt a lot like a filmmaker cashing in his prestige chips, than a continuation of his auteur-ship. The Descendants is a great film, with a transformative performance from George Clooney, but it didn't really feel like a Payne movie. It felt like a Clooney movie. Nebraska doesn't have that problem. It once again shows Payne's uncanny ability to tap into the human condition, his connection to midwestern personalities, and of course, his talent for finding hilarious sidebars throughout the alcoves of America. Payne is, more than most, an American filmmaker, and his image of America can be nostalgic and cynical at the same time, but his love for the simplicity of this country is always apparent, probably no more apparent than in Nebraska.