Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nebraska


Director Alexander Payne (2011's The Descendants), known for weaving threads of satire and dark humor into otherwise simple pictures of American society, returns this year with Nebraska, a funny movie about an old man and his son on an awkward road trip. Mr. Payne grew up in Nebraska himself, and so we can't help but believe that some of the beautiful shots (photographed totally in black and white) of the Great Plains and small-town Americana he includes are something of an ode to his past, or to that region. Set against such a lovely backdrop--think big sky, rolling grasslands, and downtown facades that look like they belong in an antiques store--the family at the center of his story appears all the more dysfunctional, which is to say normal.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a haggard elderly man, is seen at the start of the film walking precariously on the rocky shoulder of a major highway in Billings, Montana, where he and his wife and their sons have lived for many years. Woody received one of those junk-mail magazine subscription solicitations disguised as a sweepstakes award letter, and believes there is a million-dollar prize waiting for him to claim in Lincoln, Nebraska. Because he can't drive, he decides to walk. Eight hundred and fifty miles. Maybe Woody is losing his mind, we think. He must be, right? His older son (Bob Odenkirk) and wife (June Squibb) certainly think so, and suggest it's time to move him "to a home". But his younger son, David (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte), who seems to need some time away from Billings himself, offers to drive his dad to Lincoln--not because he thinks the sweepstakes letter is anything other than a complete scam, but because he feels like it's an opportunity to spend some time with his father while he is still "half-way coherent".

On the way to Lincoln, unexpected events necessitate spending a few days in the tiny, fictional town of Hawthorne, Woody's hometown. The film dwells here for a considerable amount of time, photographing a dusty fading town and making lighthearted fun of its residents, including some of Woody's relatives. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly Mr. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson want us to just grin and quietly chuckle at the cooky--and familiar?--characters. Aside from the humor, though, there are more serious themes of perseverance and decline. On one hand, the winking cynicism with which these family members and childhood acquaintances address one another never comes close to breaking the ties that bind them together. On the other hand, the comedy in the story sits just above an undercurrent of shuttered businesses, alcoholism, and lifetimes of hard work that don't seem to be paying off.

Mr. Forte's is the by far the most clear-headed character. David indulges his father's ridiculous impulses, defends his dignity, and is genuinely interested in understanding his past and securing his happiness and safety--all of this, even if it means wasting a week on a charade, in search of a pot of gold that he knows isn't there. David isn't perfect; he isn't particularly likable. But in some ways he represents us, the audience. We see the events and people of Nebraska through his eyes, and so, like him, we can appreciate both their absurdity and their practical, subtle sensibility.

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