Monday, November 18, 2013

NEBRASKA Is A Sad, Sweet, Hilarious Triumph


- NEBRASKA takes a while to fully envelop you, but man, by the movie's end, I was all in. Alexander Payne's latest directorial effort, from a script by Bob Nelson, is, perhaps, Payne's best film yet. Shot in mood-setting black and white, Nebraska is a deeply funny, deeply affecting film that is absolutely packed with stunning, career-best performances. What's more, there's an authentic humanity to this film that has, at times, been elusive in Payne's work. On more than one occasion, Payne's films have had, for me, an unsympathetic quality - a feeling that there's a disconnect between what the movies want us to feel about its characters, versus what we actually do. But NEBRASKA is a perfect blend of Coen Bros.-style surrealistic humor with genuine-but-understated sentimentality that, yes, left me a bit misty-eyed as the credits began to roll. I can't help but feel that this will go down as one of the all-time classic movies about fathers-and-sons, and family, and the passing of the torch from one generation to another. In short, I completely loved this movie.

Bruce Dern, at 77, gives the performance of a lifetime as Woody Grant. Woody is an old, addled, cranky drunk. We can assume that he's always been an ornery sort, but that soft-spoken gruffness is only accentuated by old age. Woody is now hard of hearing, slow to react, has to be helped up stairs, and is not quite all there mentally. But if nothing else, he remains a stubborn bastard. And so, when he receives a standard-issue letter in the mail, one of those "you've been selected for a million-dollar prize" letters sent out as a way to sell magazine subscriptions, Woody gets it in his head that he's actually won a million dollars, and refuses to believe otherwise. Woody wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska (nearby to the old farming town that he lived in for much of his life) to claim his cash, but he can't drive, and his wife Kate (June Squibb) won't take him. And so, Woody repeatedly sets out to walk his way from his home in Montana to Nebraska, only to be stopped by concerned cops and even more concerned family members. His older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) thinks these walking trips are a sign that it's finally time to put his dad in a nursing home. But Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte) - dissatisfied with his job and frustrated after a break-up with his longtime girlfriend - sees a trip to Nebraska as a way to appease his dad's stubborn insistence that he's won a million dollars, and as a way to spend some time with his often-distant old man.

So David and Woody set out for Nebraska on a a trip that includes detours to lonely bars, hospital rooms, and an extended stop in Woody's old neighborhood - where he and David are joined by Kate and Ross for an impromptu family reunion. Hilarity - and tension - ensues, as family members bring up old debts in an attempt to squeeze Woody for a share of his winnings (everyone in the town believes - or wants to believe - that Woody's million-dollar win is legit, with David and Ross' denials interpreted as an attempt to cover up their newly-acquired riches). The biggest bottom-feeder, however, isn't a member of Woody's family but his old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who gets pretty aggressive about shaking down Woody and his family for what he believes is payment owed.

The hilarity and poignancy of NEBRASKA is how Woody's immediate family rallies together around its patriarch. At the start of the film, Woody's wife and sons are just about at their wits' ends with him, but they're forced to stand up for him when all the vultures (misguided though they may be about his finances) come to scavenge. But what makes it all hit home is how we discover this whole life that Woody lived - a life that included friends and family, love and death, rivals and wrongdoings, hurt and heartbreak - that David knew little of from his man-of-few-words father. Inadvertently, the trip to Nebraska causes the whole of Woody's previously hidden life story to unfold and unravel before his son's eyes.

And Bruce Dern, like I said, is phenomenal. There is absolutely no ego in his turn as Woody - he plays him as a man whose thoughts are muddled, but who clings to his few remaining goals with the ferocity of a person who realizes he's nearing the end of the road. Dern brilliantly uses Woody's mental fog to both hilarious comic effect (some of his delayed reactions are priceless), and to make us feel for Woody and his determination to see his quest through to its bitter end. Wispy-haired and glassy-eyed, there's an honesty and rawness to Dern's performance that is incredible. This is awards-worthy stuff, no doubt.

I have to say though, my favorite performance in the film might actually be June Squibb as Woody's long-suffering bulldog of a wife, Kate. As spare as Woody is with his words, Kate is never lacking for something to say. She nags, no question, but she's also as fiercely stubborn as Woody is, in her own way, and also fiercely protective of her family. Squibb is so good as Kate - she is the heart and soul of the film, because Kate is the character who's had to stand by Woody for all his faults. She gives him a hard time, but is also his most loyal defender. Kate is sassy, sharp, and doesn't take crap from anyone. And Squibb is both tears-streaming-from-the-face hilarious, and also has the movie's biggest moments that will make you flat-out lose it, because she's so real and honest and devoted. I'll be honest, I couldn't help but think of my own grandma as I watched Squibb defiantly tell off anyone who disparaged her husband. If anyone was entitled to disparage him, it would be her. But anyone else? Watch out.

Will Forte is the actor who will be lauded for his breakthrough performance here. He's fantastic, so the kudos are well-deserved. I guess I'm just not that surprised that he knocks it out of the park. To me, Forte has always been one of those guys who created his comedy characters from a real and at-times dark place, and who was capable of doing more subtle and offbeat humor, when not making us laugh with his more over-the-top characters (and hey, even his comedic performance in MacGruber is sort of brilliant in its own way). Suffice it to say, Forte is great as David. David is the quiet son who was everyone's favorite as a kid, but who now finds himself grown and lacking direction, adrift. You get the sense that David still lives in the shadow of his dad, and part of the theme of NEBRASKA is David learning to be his own man - to toughen up, to stand up for himself.

There are a number of other great performances in the film, but I'll mention Bob Odenkirk as Ross - the more-accomplished of the two brothers, who works as a local news anchor. Odenkirk is always great, and he's great again here. He and Forte have a great brotherly chemistry, and Odenkirk's city-slicker edge helps provide a nice contrast to the myriad of farmers and country folk we see throughout the film. I've also got to give a shout-out to the great Stacy Keach, who is one of my favorite actors, and who is a lot of fun here as the smarmy, slightly-sinister Ed Pegram. You can't ask for a better antagonist than Keach, and his heated moments with Forte are priceless.

Now, about all those farmers and country folk. Some seem to be scolding Payne for looking down at the Nebraskans who populate the film. I don't think that's warranted. Payne looks upon these small-town Americans with a bit of a satirical eye, sure, but there's also genuine affection in his portrayal. Some of the characters (particularly Woody's extended family) are sort of cartoonish, but that's par for the course, and in keeping with the film's left-of-center, quirky tone. Mostly, I'd compare the way that Payne looks at the characters that populate his film to the way the Coens crafted the world of Fargo. Yes, the local color is at times played for comedy. But it's also used to great effect to create a sense of place, and to paint a picture of a particular slice of American life. There's satire here, but there's also deep admiration.

With NEBRASKA, Payne mixes the dry wit, smart satire, and understated minimalism of the Coens with an emotional undercurrent that is hard to deny, even as it sneaks up on you slowly but surely as the movie progresses. The movie plays out like a great folk song - sad, funny, and wise - gaining power from its truisms. Dern, Squibb, and Forte are all Oscar-worthy. Payne's direction has never been more sure or more confident - this, so far, is his masterpiece. And so, in what's shaping up to be a banner year for movies, NEBRASKA is an absolute can't-miss.

My Grade: A

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