Friday, February 28, 2014

Film Review: Nebraska (2013)

Thanks to its stark black-and-white visuals, there isn't a huge difference between the geography of the Midwest and the lines etched into Woody Grant's (Bruce Dern) face. Both evoke a quiet, consuming sadness that permeates every aspect of Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a sweetly melancholic comedy-drama in which Woody travels to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son David (Will Forte) in order to collect a million dollar prize that he believes he has won. The question of whether or not he has actually won is not a terribly important part of Nebraska; it's pretty clear to David, his brother (Bob Odenkirk) and their mother (June Squibb) that Woody hasn't won anything, and that the 'prize' is just a ploy to get people to order magazines. What is important is Woody's insistence on going to Lincoln regardless of what everyone says. Whether his desire comes from genuine belief or just senility is never entirely clear.  Again: it doesn't really matter. What matters is that it gets David and Woody in a car together, and how spending time with each other reveals and affects their relationship.

As with his previous film The Descendants, Nebraska finds Payne moving further away from the biting, satirical style that became his trademark for the first half of his career and more into dramatic territory. Not that Nebraska is lacking in laughs; it's often very funny, albeit in a subdued, deadpan way, but the film doesn't seem to be taking any swipes at anyone. It feels like a poison pen letter to Payne's home state in the way every character Woody and David meets is drunk, dumb or mean, but its point of view is so specific that it doesn't feel like a big statement on America, so much as a film addressing a very particular kind of American life. The version of Nebraska that Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson conjure up has a similar feel to that found in the fiction of Russell Banks; a world of small people living small lives, but with slightly more gags and a smidgeon less crippling despair.

Even though the narrative of the film is built around a fairly straightforward journey, the real substance comes from the many ways in which the two men end up being waylaid. After Woody gets drunk and gashes his head open, they have to stop over in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they are plunged into the strange, eccentric world of the extended Grant family. Though David does his best to keep Woody's "winnings" secret for fear of embarrassment, his father cannot keep quiet, and soon the entire town knows, or think they know, that Woody is a prospective millionaire. From there, the film becomes a progression of scenes in which figures from Woody's past come and ask him for money, citing debts that may or may not be real. In the case of Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody's former business partner, the debt comes wrapped up in a vague threat, though admittedly that could just be because anything Stacy Keach says is inherently threatening.

If the film was nothing but an opportunity for Bruce Dern to act both confused and proud over the fact that people from his past suddenly regard him as a big shot, and for Will Forte to act increasingly beleaguered as he tries to explain that there really isn't any money, it'd be a perfectly fine little comedy. What makes the film more than that is the way in which these interactions slowly alter the relationship between father and son. In the beginning, we sense that David loves his father, but it's in a fairly abstract way. He cares about what happens to him, but he doesn't spend that much time with him and dismisses him as little more than an old drunk. As they reach Hawthorne and he is offered glimpses into who his father was - a war veteran, a man who owned his own business, a man who could never say 'no' to someone in trouble - David begins to view him as a real person.

Nelson's script is often too on the nose when it comes to illuminating its themes, and it is none more obvious than when it deals with that specific idea, but the central performers manage to sell the relationship through the small, subtle ways in which their body language and attitude towards each other changes as the movie progresses. Dern has received the lion's share of praise for the film, but Forte's occasionally diffident, mildly pathetic turn is a key part of why the film works as an examination of a relationship slowly being worked over and, if not fixed, at least reconfigured into something new. Both performers play lead, though who you ultimately consider the protagonist might depend just as much on where you are in your own life as the film itself.

Off to the side, there's plenty of very fun stuff around the margins from Odenkirk, who is believably antagonistic as an older sibling, and the various weird members of the Grant clan, who are by turns buffoonish and conniving. The main comedic force of the film is undoubtedly June Squibb, who swans in to each of her scenes and manages to dominate anyone who crosses her path. Whether she's being overly candid about the various deceased members of Woody's family (calling his sister, who died at 19 in car crash, a "whore," for example) or telling the living ones to, in no uncertain terms, go fuck themselves, she commands the screen in a way that you might not expect from a cuddly looking 84-year old.

Its deliberately small, limited focus might make the film seem minor or inconsequential, but Nebraska is a considered, funny and insightful film about fathers and sons, the burden of a shared history, and the oddball communities that sprout up when people live in the middle of nowhere for too long. Like an updated Paper Moon with an older father-child dynamic, it uses its light-hearted road trip to deliver a story of surprising depth and feeling, carried by a pair of strong performances that feed off each other beautifully. In the end, it doesn't really amount to much, but the journey is fun, as is the film's argument that sometimes even a false victory is victory enough.

Grade: B+