Monday, January 13, 2014

Nebraska


Grade: 84/A-

Few directors capture dissatisfaction like Alexander Payne. The writer-director behind Election, About Schmidt and Sideways specializes in stories about sometimes sympathetic, sometimes irritating, always empathetic sad-sacks dealing with an ineffable question: “Is this it?” Payne’s new film, Nebraska, is the first he didn’t have a hand in writing, but it nonetheless feels like a story right from Payne’s head.

Elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is found walking on a Montana highway to collect a $1,000,000 prize in Lincoln, Nebraska. His son, David (Will Forte), and cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb) assure him that it’s a scam, but Woody won’t listen. David promises to drive Woody to Nebraska to let him have his fantasy for a few more days and bond with the father he’s not very close with.

Bob Nelson’s script gives veteran character-actor Dern a terrific showcase. At different turns sullen, matter-of-fact or lost in a mixture of sadness and possible dementia, Dern turns what could have been a caricature of a grumpy old man into a fully realized portrait of an old man who desperately needs something good and new in his life. Squibb is equally strong as a woman whose barbed insults bely a need to protect the ones she loves.

Payne’s detractors often accuse him of condescending to his supporting characters. Nebraska does contain a few tonal missteps here, namely with a handful of stereotypically dopey relatives who want some of Dern’s nonexistent earnings (Stacy Keach already fulfills this story bit more effectively as Dern’s greedy friend). But for the most part, his touch is deft, with every comic bit hitting (“Why’d you have kids?” “Because I liked to screw, and your mother’s a Catholic”), and every bit of pathos serving Dern’s character. It’s appropriate that Payne opted to shoot the film in black-and-white: Woody exists in a world without excitement, so draining it of color only makes his desire, and his emotional fulfillment, all the more powerful.

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