Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Nebraska

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is coming to the end of things. He’s old and, while still tough as an old boot, starting to lose his faculties. Sometimes he seems in a daze, or unsure of his surroundings, other times he seems clear and sharp. But the downward trend is clear.

This manifests itself most obviously in his sudden fixation on a phony sweepstakes letter he receives, of the ‘You may have already won 1 000 000 000’ kind. Convinced the letter is real, or maybe just indulging the fantasy, Woody determines to make his way to the State of the movie’s title, headquarters of the sweepstakes company, to claim his prize.  When his no nonsense family refuse to take him he sets out on foot, a repeated pattern that ends each time with his aimless, well meaning son David (Will Forte) bringing him home.

But when Woody’s wanderings start to pose a danger to the old man, David decides to drive his father to Nebraska after all, to prove that the prize is fake and snap him out of his reverie. Father and son take to the highway for a gentle, wryly comic road trip featuring many familiar road trip elements; misunderstandings, arguments, laughs, tension, regrets.

En route, Woody gets drunk and takes a tumble and the trip is more fully detoured by a few days of recuperation in the small town of Billings, where Woody grew up and much of his extended family still lives. His peppery wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) come to check up on him, and a round of family gatherings ensues. The polite veneer that hangs across these lunches and dinners is soon torn down however, once word of Woody’s ‘winnings’ gets out. 

It’s only a short step for Woody’s many friends and relatives to go from congratulating him on his good fortune… to trying to claim a piece of it for themselves, which they all do with varying degrees of forcefulness. And once the lie behind the cash is revealed, it’s an even shorter step for everyone to disown him again.

Alexander Payne’s sixth feature film is another assured effort, very much in keeping with the director’s previous works. And the muted tone, observational approach and mix of comic and dramatic on display here will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the director’s career to date.

Payne has always been a good director of actors – have a look at how many Oscar nominations his films have wrought, for one example of this – and he again elicits excellent performances from a strong cast. 

As the gruff, but likable, Woody, Bruce Dern has his best role (and craziest hair) in years, and he is well paired with an equally ingratiating performance from Will Forte. Although June Squibb trumps them both, in a riotous turn that quickly accelerates from put upon housewife to savage mouthed pitbull in a few hilarious scenes. Her vigorous defence of her husband’s character, and commensurate takedown of the rest of his family’s, is the films undoubted highlight. 

Although there is much to enjoy throughout, particularly the luminous black and white cinematography of Phedon Papamichael and the rustic score of Mark Orton. Both suit the film’s restrained, deliberate pace and add atmosphere and charm. 

Watching Nebraska is a bit like paying a visit to a small town in a quiet part of the country; it's easy going, undemanding, almost soothing. Everyone is unhurried. There is space and silence between moments and people. Much seems to be left unsaid, but even this could be illusionary. Like the inscrutable expression on the main characters face, you wonder; Are these people quiet because they're thinking things over? Or not thinking at all? Do they move through their lives slowly because they know something you don't? Or do they know nothing?

And, again like spending time in a quiet, out of the way place, sometimes the film hangs a bit heavy. There may be, at least a little, too much of not very much going on. There are flatspots, and the characters (for me, always excepting June Squibb) wear out their welcome after a time. The ending too, is a bit pat which seems at odds with the messy interpersonal relationships that the film otherwise centres around.

But mostly, this is as pleasant as a cruise down a back country highway on a summers day. It's entertaining and undemanding, with just enough insight to give the hint of resonance. It doesn't hit the pointed heights of some of Payne's other films, but has a genuine warmth that is missing from them as well. 

A polished film with many fine qualities.

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