Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Nebraska

Back in the late 1980s, I remember reading a piece in which film critics were asked what they were tired of seeing in contemporary cinema. The New York Times'  Janet Maslin replied "..geriatric last visits around hometowns."  I think she was referring to films like THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Ms. Maslin has since retired from film criticism, but I wonder if she's taken the time to watch NEBRASKA, the latest from director Alexander Payne. Would she stand by her carp? Or have the years softened her take? Do you have to be a weary senior citizen to appreciate the endless well of poignancy such a visit would provide?

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, septagenarian, perhaps in the early stages of dementia. He's first seen wandering a highway outside of Billings, MT, the town where he raised 2 sons: David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). He's still married to the long suffering Kate (June Squibb). Woody receives a letter informing him he may have won a million dollars. It's sent from one of those companies trying to sell magazine subscriptions. Woody is convinced the money is waiting at their Lincoln, Nebraska office and wants to go there to collect. Since he can no longer drive, he sets out on foot, until David comes out to get him. This happens several times a week. David (and everyone else) repeatedly tells the old fool that he's falling for an obvious scam.

David finally relents and agrees to drive his old man to Nebraska. To appease him, to shut him up, to give his mom a break, yes, but also realizing that it may be the last quality time he will have with him. The backstory more than once reveals that Woody has been less than a model of paternalism. In a few brief scenes, we also see David's own life is less than fulfilling - his moment with an ex-girlfriend who comes to visit, by the way, is the only scene in the film that to me felt written, theatrical.

Woody's brother and his family live in Hawthorne, Nebraska, their hometown. It is there that the bulk of NEBRASKA unfolds. Through a misunderstanding, the entire town comes to believe that Woody really has come into a fortune, instantly making him a local celebrity. Old friends, enemies, and loves stir with excitement, a rare bit of activity in their depressed landscape with its near tumbleweed downtown and cow pastures.

You may know that Payne is from Nebraska. Several of his films have been set there. Even though he did not pen NEBRASKA this is a most certainly a Payne film. His eye, sense, and feel for the nuances and ennui of small town life is unmistakable. It's bleak, defeated, somewhat like what was witnessed in the great THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. But the director does not cast judgment or scorn, or ask us to feel sorry for these folks as they sit zombified on couches, tilting bottles of Bud into their maws and watching football, or even just watching traffic from the porch. He may get a few smiles at their expense, but he never mocks. Phedon Papamichael's black and white photography is gorgeously evocative, adding a downbeat shading to every moment, but it likewise doesn't feel contrived to make us feel superior or filled with pity.

NEBRASKA so vividly (yet quietly) examines that small town existence, how for some life ended decades ago. They never moved an inch. What do they think as they drive down the same roads they had as teenagers? Every corner a spark of memory? What of the news writer David speaks with, a former girlfriend of Woody's, who provides more information about the man than did the man himself.  How does she live with constant reminders of what was lost as she crosses those streets?

My favorite scene: the family visits Woody's childhood home on the outskirts of Hawthorne, his wanderings through the dilapidated house reminding him of the whippings he received from his father, the death of his brother at the age of 2. His mental fog lifts long enough to verbalize a few remembrances and for shadows of the past to cross his face. He finally dismisses the scene as a "pile of wood and some weeds." Dern, is such a beautiful portrayal, conveys the corrosion of this longtime alcoholic through his pauses, silences, body language. A gentle soul underneath the gruff, but never one for pat sentiment or embraces. But his eyes say otherwise.

Yes, Payne again provides a fair amount of laughs in NEBRASKA that will echo the sort of humor used in the director's earlier films.  Most come from the inertia of its charcters. In every Payne movie there are a collection of townspeople with distinctive faces and character tics. Squibb, previously seen as Jack Nicholson's wife in Payne's ABOUT SCHMIDT, gets the most guffaws with her feistiness, her nonstop blunt commentary on those she grew up with. Even during a trip to a cemetery she gives bawdy reminiscences.

As with Payne's THE DESCENDANTS and ABOUT SCHMIDT, the family dynamic (or lack of) is given a hard examination. What it means to be part of a union, to plant roots. To nuture.  David repeatedly asks his father about his life, his motivations to have a family.  The answers are abrupt, but not inconclusive. Woody is painted simply but pointedly. Does the son fear he will become his father?

Those familiar with THE STRAIGHT STORY will also see many similarities. Though David Lynch's film is a bit more sentimental,  NEBRASKA examines both the inherent good and the baser impulses of Midwesterners, especially when they think Woody is about to collect a hefty sum. Both films, however,  have a warmth that is never forced. The final sequence, as Woody leaves Hawthorne for likely the final time, shows 3 key people from his life, their very different reactions as he passes by. It's a great moment. We've learned enough about them for the scene to have incredible weight. In the final seconds, a lesser film might've gone all gooey. NEBRASKA ends on a warm note in a simple bit of blocking, the style of which I wish was more common in dramas.

NEBRASKA is a very deliberate, somber film. It is a relief to watch a film take its time, develop charcters, not bombard us with an emotional catharsis every few minutes. It's no accident that the Paramount logos that bookend the film are the ones they used in the '50s and '60s. It is as if we've discovered a real chestnut, a lost mini classic from a bygone era when films respected our intelligence and our blood pressure. Thank you again, Mr. Payne.

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