Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Cinema File #314: "Nebraska" Review

Alexander Payne's mastery of slow burning awkwardness amidst Midwestern banality is no better encapsulated than by his well known penchant for setting so many of his movies in that most outwardly boring of states, our beloved Nebraska. Its only fitting that for his first attempt at directing a film that he did not also write, that he would not only find a script set there, but find one literally named after the place. Nebraska, the movie, is as Alexander Payne-ful as one can get, to the point where you probably wouldn't be able to guess that he hadn't written it if you didn't know it already. Its simple, sweet, and comes together nicely as most of his films do, but quickly sinks into the same vacuum of dry realism that makes so many of his movies so frustratingly drab and picayune. And the black and white certainly doesn't help.

Until the day that I die, I will always feel the sting of insult from the ending credits of last years high concept flop The Lone Ranger. If you haven't seen it or don't recall, the end finds an elderly Tonto walking off into the sunset as if to promise a post credit sequence that never comes, leading you to wait through minutes of one boring solid image only to leave angrily when the movie just ends, even as you wonder why you cared, considering everything else before that was so bad. Nebraska begins almost like the deliberate inverse of this, black and white on an urban highway rather than the vibrantly colored old west, with an elderly man slowly walking towards the camera from a great distance away, again with the promise of this journey meaning something, and since its the beginning of the movie, you think it can't help but lead there. It actually takes about forty minutes or so to come to anything, and until then I was practically begging the movie to get to wherever it was going, but eventually, it kind of almost amounts to a story worth watching.

The elderly man is Woody Grant, a senile old coot on a mission to get to Nebraska to cash in a million dollar prize, not realizing that its just a junk mail scam to get him to buy a magazine subscription. To stop him from hurting himself on a fool's errand, his son David agrees to drive him there, only to find the comforting lie of Woody the Millionaire brings more trouble than its worth when they pass through his old hometown along the way. Trying to condense this movie down to a few sentences was exceedingly difficult just then, not because there is some deeper hidden complexity to the story, but rather because it barely amounts to one at all. That's not to say that its a bad film, but the conflicts are just so small time and it all unfolds in such a lackadaisical manner befitting the slow minded, slow moving, small town characters at its heart, that its just that much harder to engage with it when things actually get going, a constant snail's pace that never quite picks up.

The only real reason to watch the movie, as you've already no doubt heard if you've talked to anyone else whose seen it, is the performance of Bruce Dern as Woody. As morbid as it sounds, its the kind of role you almost hope is the last for an actor as old and as accomplished as Dern, allowing him to go out on a high note as opposed to someone like Sean "Sir Billi" Connery or the Mayor or Mooseport Gene Hackman. His Alzheimer-ridden codger is all at once ornery, lovable, somber, and reflective, without being overly-sentimental or emotionally manipulative in that way old people in movies centered around the end of life tend to be. The film to its credit never asks you to like Woody, just to accept him for his faults and his past and try and understand him enough to see the world as he sees it, even through the haze of senility.

Will Forte plays Woody's son David, regrettably proving himself not quite ready to jump into dramatic roles like this just yet. Its not entirely his fault, as the character he's playing is designed to be very bland and emotionally closed off for reasons explored in the film, but then there are moments when he seems like he should be more vibrant and emotional, but instead he just maintains the same wooden expression. His delivery is so flat and lifeless that it sometimes feels like he has the script in his lap to peek at in between takes. Its not so damaging that it even threatens to ruin the movie though, as at the end of the day its Woody's story, and he's captivating enough to carry the dramatic weight for the both of them. The only real problem with Forte's blase approach is that as the film evolves into a story about a distant father bonding and finding common ground with his adult son, the balance of the relationship feels slightly off when only one of them is doing their fair share.

As a character piece exploring a few days in the life of an eccentric old man, Nebraska works just fine, though as a movie it can get to be a particularly hard slog, as it tends to move at about the speed of its hobbled aging protagonist. Dern's certainly good enough here to justify the Oscar nomination, though maybe not quite enough to win it (I'm still giving it to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club), and the rest of it is just entertaining enough to pass, with the caveat that if your tastes tend more towards explosions and high concept fluff, there's pretty much nothing here for you except maybe a cure for insomnia. Its not so much plotless as sort of listless. Or maybe that's even too harsh. It knows where it wants to go and what it wants to be, but could easily stand to be a little more excited about getting there.
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