Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
Release date: November 15th, 2013
Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The eclectic performances.
Worst part: The discomforting tonal shifts.
What exactly defines a director’s ‘body of work’? A signature style? A high-minded agenda? A rise or fall in overall quality? Simple answer: all of the above. This energetic term refers to a director’s all-encompassing works becoming cognitive parts of a much larger odyssey. One director sporting a stellar and eclectic filmography is Alexander Payne. Since I fondly appreciate his acclaimed works, I refuse to make a dim-witted pun about his last name. In fact, despite his rich and irritable cynicism, his movies speak the truth about monumental issues. Payne, with Nebraska, takes a wild detour back to his old stomping grounds.
Thankfully, 2013’s Best Director nominees have charged head-on into informative and alarming topics. From Spike Jonze’s scintillating work in Her to Steve McQueen’s transcendent efforts in 12 Years a Slave, these filmmakers transformed a humble crop of dramas into the past decade’s greatest Oscar nominees. Payne, shooting previous Oscar seasons into the stratosphere, knows how this process works. Gracefully, the likeable and vague director writes love letters to his younger self. His movie’s personal touches hint at gargantuan promises and immense surprises. Thankfully, they all work to his movies’ advantage. Here, Payne places his heart on the line, and is almost willing to stomp on it himself to prove a point. The move follows a disgruntled family aching for change. In the opening scene, a decrepit and alcoholic old timer, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is caught wondering the streets of Billings, Montana. Brought into the local police precinct, Grant is convinced he’s hit the jackpot. Carrying a sweepstakes scam letter in his jacket pocket, Grant strives to retrieve his staggering $1 million ‘winnings’. With Grant’s frustrated son David (Will Forte) forced to pick him up and drop him back to his lively residence, Grant’s literal and figurative demons become abundantly clear.
Prodded by his wife Kate (June Squibb) at debilitating moments, his anger ever-so-slowly rises to the surface. Despite Grant’s bizarre behaviour, David, running away from his own problems, drops everything to take his unhinged father on this mind-boggling journey. Payne fuses modernity and tradition in this kooky dramedy. In creating this dreamscape, the priceless director reaches into his ol’ bag of tricks. Nebraska instills his electrifying filmography’s more distinctive kinks. Like Sideways and The Descendants, the narrative rests its transformative quirks on one quaint road trip. Obsessed with road trips, deceptive schemes, and irritating family units, Payne’s style is brought to the forefront of this ageless and touching familial drama. However, despite my intentions, ageless may be the wrong word. This Best Picture nominee, like Philomena, examines people of vastly different age groups. Commenting on cliches and hearsay, the movie quashes any preconceptions about the elderly community. Yes, the elderly characters in Nebraska do yell at younger people and regale family members with tiresome tales. However, they choose do so because of hard work and free will. First time feature writer Bob Nelson gives these retirees distinctive traits and empathetic shades. Tugging at heartstrings and brain cells, Nebraska‘s fruitful narrative comments on an era as old as the movie’s lead character. Convinced this shade of Middle America could become obsolete, Payne’s emphatic direction hurls the movie’s issues into the spotlight. Pushing against the grain, the movie’s gritty conflicts and resolutions inject observational comedic moments and intriguing personalities into the sprawling narrative. Contrasting personalities, defined by life-altering decisions and brash revelations, add emotional depth to this otherwise discomforting tale.
“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!” (Kate Grant (June Squibb), Nebraska).
Unfortunately, whilst returning to familiar territory, Payne doesn’t delve into anything original. The story, reminiscent of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Paris, Texas, builds a cavalcade of overtly sentimental moments and tiresome cliches. Heading back to Grant’s hometown of Hawthorne, long-dead conflicts, long lost loves, and caricatures come out to greet him. Buying into Grant’s peculiar antics, the vultures – led by Grant’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – circle the unenthusiastic and ignorant lead character. Payne, refusing to sugarcoat certain situations and details, oddly embraces and rejects nostalgia and lower-middle class America simultaneously. This multi-millionaire – commenting on small-town America and economic turmoil – indulges in his perfunctory material. Aged care, family values, and the American dream are small fragments of Payne’s shattered perspective. However, despite the overwhelming agenda, Payne’s startling visual style and attention to detail stand above the conventional screenplay. Ambitiously shot in Black in White, Phedon Papamichael’s glorious cinematography lends poetic beauty to this cynical dramedy. Embedding itself into the consciousness within the first few minutes, the black and white photography turns a simplistic melodrama into a multidimensional character study. In addition, the quirky and efficient score lends gravitas to this comforting road trip. Plunking away, folk-blues sounds waft over certain sequences like none other. Hats off to Payne for that choice. Fortunately, the performances, more so than the visuals, hurls the audience into this darkly comic tale. Dern, an indie drama darling, establishes his immense prowess. Despite being the outsider in this year’s Best Actor list, his enigmatic and subtle performance elevates every scene. Saturday Night Live graduate Forte delivers his greatest performance as the miserable and amicable David. His character – picked on by sex-offending cousins, steely-eyed enemies, and rambunctious elderly relatives – is a step above most in this nostalgic romp. Squibb excels in her disarming role. Pushing her relatives to breaking point, her character becomes a terrible person doing commendable things. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk nicely rounds out the cast as the family’s more successful son.
Nebraska, despite the quaint charm and ingenious performances, is far from your typical comedic farce. Payne, not one to hide from the truth, places his thoughts and ideas in full view. His frankly modest perspective makes his characters walk that fine line between chaos and control. With Dern, Forte, and Squibb’s charisma saving all-important scenes, this eclectic road-trip dramedy transitions into a potent and thematically relevant adventure. Though not deserving of its Best Picture nomination, the movie, like its main character, is crazy in the sanest possible way.