Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Nebraska

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

For the past several weeks, I have been obsessively scanning the ground for money.

Not loose change, though I've actually found some of that. No, actual dollar bills. Or, I should say, $5 and up, because Australia no longer has any bills that are under $5.

I've had success finding money before -- for example, I've found two different $50 bills in my life. Never when I was actively looking for them, of course, but over the years, I have indeed found between $200 and $300 cash just lying on the ground. It's more than most people have found, I'd venture.

Looking for money started as kind of a joke, an ironic commentary on my inability to find work here in Australia. The only way I would be able to bring in money for my family, the joke went, was if I literally found it lying on the ground.

But then it became kind of an obsession, and now, everywhere I walk, I visually scour the underbrush for the right shades of pink, red, blue, yellow and green that would indicate Australian paper currency. I wouldn't be surprised if there was something of the crazy old man about me.

And so I felt a kinship toward the main character in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a black-and-white-and-bleak look at disappointed rural Americans and their quest for the cure-all of an illusory fiscal treasure. I've got 30 years to go before I'm really in his shoes, but my current inability to find a job -- after only seven weeks of looking, I should point out -- has already gotten me melodramatically wondering about the ultimate financial output of my so-called "career."

So yeah, I guess you could say I was in the perfect state of mind to be meeting Woody Grant.

Grant (Bruce Dern) is a scraggly old SOB who lives in Billings, Montana with his irascible wife Kate (June Squibb) and within shouting distance of his two hangdog sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk). It's a much bigger distance than shouting he wants to cover when he sets off for Lincoln, Nebraska one morning -- on foot, since he's no longer allowed to drive, and doesn't have a functioning vehicle even if he could. A state trooper scoops him up in the breakdown lane on the interstate, at which point his son David (Forte) learns that Woody aims to claim a million dollar prize promised to him by a company trying to sell magazine subscriptions.

Despite everyone in Woody's immediate family trying to explain that the million dollars does not exist, Woody persists in the idea that this is his ticket to buying a few meager items he's currently lacking: a new pickup truck (which he wouldn't be eligible to drive anyway) and an air compressor to replace the one his friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) "borrowed" from him back in the early 1970s. When Woody makes several more attempts to limp his way to Nebraska, David decides that humoring him is the best way to put the subject to rest once and for all. What harm could be done by a couple days of an old codger's fantasy, followed by the definitive repudiation of that fantasy?

Here's the harm: By indulging his father, David inadvertently lends credence to the notion that his father may actually be a rich man -- and it isn't long before all manner of family members and other tenuous acquaintances want a piece of Woody's non-existent pie.

Payne has never been known for cooking up exercises in sentiment, and in fact, he's been accused of displaying a certain contempt for his characters over the years. Similar charges have dogged the Coen brothers, among others. But Payne gets the characterization of Woody just right. He's such a stubborn coot, with such little regard for the people he supposedly loves, that it's darn near impossible to feel any sympathy for him. Nor does Payne make him the fool. Sure, Woody is foolish, but he's also possibly struggling with the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. In any case, he's neither to be pitied nor to be indicted for his behavior. He's just an old man trying to find some solace in a life that he didn't really live to its fullest. It isn't necessary for him to have a moment of enlightenment or change ... which doesn't mean Payne may not have some version of that in store for him.

The sadder character may be Forte's David, whose life isn't going a lot better than his dad's despite being a demonstrably kinder, better person. When David tells his father he can't just up and drive him to Nebraska, Woody shoots back, tellingly, "Why? What you got going on?" The answer, they both realize, is not a lot.

Payne is as sharp as ever with his observations of human foibles and frailties, yet also finds easy laughs in among his low-key pain. It's this small percentage of showing us the other side of the story that makes Nebraska an exercise in humanism rather than misanthropy. Take the Oscar-nominated Squibb as Woody's wife. She's so cantankerous -- aggressively so, to Woody's passive embodiment of that trait -- that it really seems she exists solely as one-dimensional comic relief. Until she gets not one, but two scenes that demonstrate just how hard she fights for those who apparently exasperate her. You can't just write Kate off as a shrew. She's a shrew with a heart of gold.

Phedon Papamichael's black and white photography makes this plain story even plainer, to great effect. Even though it was shot on video in color, the chiaroscuro outcome is that of the old greats. No one will mistake this for a misplaced artistic pretension on Payne's part. The black and white merely heighten the timelessness of regret.

Nebraska does have a few faults. There are some moments of stiff acting and excess exposition near the start, and the concluding ten minutes contain some choices that don't necessarily seem like logical offshoots of the most recent action. Woody gets to have at least one moment that it doesn't seem like he really needs.

If that end choice sticks out, however, it's because it seems to be a concession to conventional storytelling that Payne never otherwise makes. And that's most certainly a compliment.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

Really nice review here. I agree nearly 100% with you - though I didn't see the stiffness that you're referring to.

I think the directorial choice that really grabbed me the most - besides the black and white - is the decision to bask in the silences. So many people in this film don't speak more than they have to and there are these long periods where no dialog is spoken. Its noticeable, but not in a bad way. Payne is bringing the realism here. He's allowing his characters to remain as they would be in the real world - in Nebraska, there's no need to talk if you don't have anything important to say - but he's also giving the audience a chance to soak it all up. I found these chances to be some of the most beautiful moments in the film.