Friday, November 22, 2013

A Reel Review: NEBRASKA

The latest film from  Alexander Payne, NEBRASKA, is the director’s latest chapter in his ever-growing bible of human frailty stories; a bible which in recent years has produced the Oscar-darlings SIDEWAYS (2004) and last year’s THE DESCENDANTS. In this chapter, Payne teams up with an oft-forgotten screen legend for a road trip through the heartland of America and the heart of an old man.
Woody (Bruce Dern) is an 80-something, confused and crotchety old man who is convinced that he has won a million dollars in a Publishers Clearing House-type sweepstakes. Unable to drive he begins the long hike on foot from Montana to Nebraska, despite the objections of his youngest son David (Will Forte) and his wife Kate (June Squibb).

NEBRRAKSA sets itself up as a run-of-the-mill road trip flick coupled with a father-and-son bonding story. Once David and Woody hit the road and get detoured to the small town where Woody grew up, things take a different and welcome turn. As word gets out over Woody’s imminent yet unlikely fortune, family members and old friends begin to show up with their hands out, and through all this Woody’s life story begins to unfold. David gets to know his father by seeing and hearing his past, and NEBRASKA becomes more about life in general than one man’s desperate attempt to claim his winnings. There are no grand statements or definitive answers given about how we should be living our lives; NEBRASKA is simply one intimate look at the way one person has lived his.
Director Alexander Payne does remarkable work with his main character. Woody is unlikeable at first; he is mean and miserable, answers questions in one word answers, and can’t understand any person’s feelings of love and/or attachment. But what makes Woody so loveable is Payne basically turning him into a little kid. Woody is so sincere in his want to travel to Nebraska that you can’t help but to hope that there just may be a pot of gold for him. Woody may be an angry old fart, but his sincerity is as genuine as a little kid who has just been promised a trip to the toy store; they don’t forget and they don’t let go.

Payne has put together a beautiful looking film. Shot in glorious black and white during a time of year when the trees are leaf-less and the farmlands are bare, the film presents a stark and stunning look at the landscape. Payne also pays close attention to, without being distracting, the simple lives that inhabit the small towns in the farmlands which are one street long.
Bruce Dern proves his acting chops are still as sharp as ever. Dern, who turned 77 this year, is an actor who has worked alongside the likes of John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock, and here he turns in a performance which makes you believe that his old friends are still there on set with him. Dern is funny and miserable, but at the same time pulls your heart out with a single, tragic-looking glance. It’s a performance that he has been working up to his entire career. Will Forte shows his inexperience through the film; never really coming close to matching Dern or giving enough to make us care. June Squibb (who turned 84 this year) turns in a fantastic performance as the equally cantankerous wife, and Stacy Keach turns in a great peformance as Woody’s old partner/villain looking to cash in on the supposed fortune. A lot of the cast is composed of real-life locals, which adds to the great sense of realism to the film.

The finale doesn’t go for any bombastic speeches or teary-eyed embraces, but instead takes things slow and easy just as it would have played out in real life. There is still a great amount of heart to be had, making NEBRASKA a nice place to visit, and a pleasure to live in.

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