Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
I’ve always loved Alexander Payne’s uniquely quirky (but never twee, unlike Wes Anderson) sensibility, from films like Election, About Schmidt and Sideways to 2012 Oscar-nominee The Descendants (for which he, himself, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay). This new film has all of the elements of his writing that I admire, including the seamless way he almost always uses physical journeys as metaphors for the spiritual journeys of his protagonists.
Still, for better or for worse, when this new film ended, I felt as empty as the landscapes of the vast plains of the Midwest. The change – if any there really was – in the lives of the characters had been minimal. Which, to give Payne all due credit, seems to be his point. After all, he shot Nebraska, with all of its glorious landscapes, in black & white. Life is full of shades of gray, with subtle shifts between near identical colors that may hide pools of meaning beneath the surface, or may be just part of the same palette. The journey’s the thing, in other words; getting there may not be the point. I guess this time, I felt like getting there (metaphorically speaking, since we do arrive, eventually, somewhere). You may feel differently. Some folks like the journey for its own sake. I still greatly enjoyed the film.
Nebraska – which could be seen as a cross between Fargo and The Straight Story – is Payne’s sort-of homage to his home state. Bruce Dern, still going strong at 77, and wonderful here, plays Woody Grant, a man convinced that the generic sweepstakes letter he received, promising him a one-million-dollar reward, is real. Or, at least, believing in it gives him something to do. And that “something” is to get himself to Lincoln, Nebraska, from Billings, Montana, where he now lives. The problem is he can’t drive (no license) and no one will take him (they know the letter is fake, and don’t feel like indulging him). A not-so-functional alcoholic with a long-suffering wife and two grown sons, Woody seems to be rapidly approaching the end of self-sufficiency. There’s talk of putting him in a nursing home. So why not escape into fantasy? No one will play along, except for his younger son, David (Will Forte, best known as a cast member for 10 years on “Saturday Night Live,” and quite good), whose own life isn’t that great, either. So, together, they head southeast to Lincoln.
Before they arrive, however, Woody’s drinking causes him to injure himself. There’s a trip to a hospital for a quick patch-up, and by this time David realizes he’s in a bit over his head. Instead of driving to Lincoln, then, the pair head to the small town in Nebraska where Woody grew up, and where the rest of his family still lives. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), and elder son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), decide to join them, and the film shifts gears to become a meditation on roots and the consequences of action (and inaction). With great performances all around, including from Stacy Keach as an old frenemy of Woody’s, the film is pitch-perfect in its observations of human goodness and venality.
At times almost a documentary of the absurdity of Midwestern life (Payne, shooting on location in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, loves to show close-ups of odd billboards and road signs), the film is saved from caricature through the strength of its writing and its actors. Everyone is a real person, no matter how silly. Comedy and beauty exist side by side. One shot best sums up this aesthetic for me: when Woody and David visit Mt. Rushmore, we see the four presidents on their cliff, a marvel of sculpture and engineering; on the right side of the frame in the foreground, however, is a road sign that partially blocks the view, making the shot ridiculous. Even if I wanted to end up in a slightly more satisfying place at the end of the film, I was more than happy to have spent two hours with a man who would choose to line up a composition like that. Shades of gray, indeed.