Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nebraska Movie Review

No one is currently making movies about small town middle Americans quite like Alexander Payne. He’s like the Frank Capra of Nebraska, but with a drier sense of humor. It takes a special kind of disposition to tell stories about people in flyover states without playing down to the erudite and occasionally superior attitudes of the self-described educated people of New York and Los Angeles. Nebraska tells the story of simple people in a rather simple situation. There’s none of that common-man-in-extraordinary-circumstances here, although Woody Grant is treated like a hero or a celebrity for reportedly being named the lucky winner of a million dollars.

Woody (Bruce Dern) isn’t exactly an elderly man who has been easily duped by a sweepstakes letter. He’s more of a man who has been too long disappointed with his life – primarily due to the lack of choices he’s made. It sounds like he fell into marriage, fell into having kids, and then fell into drinking too much. Now he’s trying to do something and damned if anyone will tell him he can’t go to Lincoln, Nebraska (he lives in Montana), to claim his money. He tries walking several times before his younger son, David (Will Forte), against the insistence of his mother and brother, decides to drive him there.

So it’s a road movie penned by Bob Nelson (it’s unusual for Payne to direct someone else’s screenplay), but instead of two people acquiring mutual respect and understanding of one another, David learns more about his dad than he’d ever known before. Woody is about as taciturn as they come, so it’s not at all surprising his kids know little about him. Their journey brings them through the town where Woody grew up, got married, and had kids before probably some circumstance not of his own making brought him a thousand miles away. We see Woody’s silence and inability to expound in any detail on anything is a familial trait. He and all his brothers gather in the living room to watch the game. The conversation isn’t scintillating, but it is real. The six or seven men in the room exchange fewer than a dozen sentences between them.

Woody’s wife makes up for his lack of speechifying by harping, complaining, and expressing her forthright and honest opinions about everyone, both living and dead. June Squibb is a marvelous find for this role with her sweet grandmotherly features and squeaky voice almost entirely stamped out by her character’s firebrand personality. She and Dern run this show with Forte just about keeping up and Bob Odenkirk as David’s older brother treading water, especially when Stacy Keach shows up later as Woody’s old friend and partner.

Payne’s decision to shoot in black and white isn’t exactly essential, although it certainly is welcome. Not enough movies take advantage of the beautiful stylistic option that absence of color provides in the palette. I think the movie would work in color, but the black and white strips it down. It allows the cinematography to focus on the starkness of the American Midwest, with the open road, vast fields of wheat and livestock, and Mt. Rushmore waiting in the middle of the country for visitors passing through on their way to other places. I kept thinking how uniquely American this movie is. The road movie genre is a great American creation as it pulls together our reliance on automobiles for travel and the greatness of exploration that brought early settlers farther and farther west. Then it combines that with characters in a classic tale of a journey.

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