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An emotional journey into Americana

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte in a scene from Nebraska.
By Pablo Suarez
Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated film Nebraska is a pleasure to watch

At a time when Hollywood produces more and more crowd-pleasing blockbusters and comedies, Alexander Payne’s tender, heartfelt movies (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), have a place of their own for they are a near perfect antidote to uninspired mainstream cinema. They are talkative, but not that much and in a good way, restrained instead of excessive, low-key and never hot-blooded. In other words: they are a cinematic pleasure to watch.

Nebraska, his new film nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, is likely to be his best feature: an engagingly sharp and sweetly emotional piece which achieves that elusive perfect balance between the comedy and tragedy of life and old age. A film that doesn’t eschew the pains of growing old, but neither does it depict them through the prism of depression. A rare piece that benefits from second viewings where you can catch seemingly unimportant details that you missed before — you know, the kind of details that speak about an entire little-known universe.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an alcoholic old man in his late seventies who firmly thinks — and couldn’t be more wrong — that he’s won a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. So without consulting anybody, he resolves to travel from Montana to Nebraska, more precisely to Lincoln, to claims his prize. Leaving aside his old age, there’s another big problem: he’s semi-coherent half of the time, and the other half he’s just lost. So it shouldn’t be surprising that neither his mouthy wife Kate (June Squibb) and his eldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are willing to go along with what could certainly be his last whim. In fact, they strongly oppose and are unafraid to show it in all possible ways.

But there’s also his second son, David (Will Forte), who does decide to humour his old man after he has unsuccessfully tried, many times, to make him see that the million-dollar prize is nothing but a hoax to get people to buy magazine subscriptions. But since Woody won’t believe it, off they go, father and son, on a road trip that will take them through Woody’s old hometown. Typical of road movies, this is not only a literal trip, but above all a metaphorical one that will bring them closer to understanding one another.

The synopsis does sound like overworked fare because, in many senses, it is. In the hands of a merely competent and somewhat clever director, it would result in an ordinary film with a couple of findings. As imagined by a Hollywood major director, it would be an awful picture. But made by Alexander Payne, it’s nothing of the above. What makes a good film is not so much what it is about, but how it’s told. And the supreme joy of Nebraska is its most smart, wondrous way of examining and probing deep into the many nuances of its compelling characters. That’s what makes it exceptional.

In the emotional, yet unsentimental and bittersweet script by Bob Nelson (a television writer now proudly debuting in cinema with an Oscar nomination for Best Script), the Grant family is allowed to live and breathe in an utterly credible fashion, with their insecurities and fears slipping through the cracks of everyday life. Even Kate and Ross, who in the end do show up for the unscheduled family reunion, have a profundity depth that goes beyond their supporting roles. As Kate fusses Woody around, often badmouthing him in a sometimes shocking way, you can surely see the years of love, frustration and life they share.

Seasoned thespian Bruce Dern (Oscar nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role) has been rightfully lauded for personifying Woody. No wonder. As he drifts through the film with his unruly white hair and a stiff determination to get to Nebraska —come what may — he fully fleshes a character who is both a noble figure and a very ordinary man, lost in time and in reality too. Sometimes he’s funny, other times he’s touching, but he’s never a ridiculous cartoon figure to make viewers laugh out loud or move them to tears. See, he’s just a wonderful man who goes places.

Will Forte is also notable as hides all traces of his well known comedic persona and becomes the sweet, caring David who goes along the ride only to get to spend some time with his Dad. His performance, while not nearly memorable as that of Dern, is occasionally arresting and always convincing.

The same cannot be said of Bob Odenkirk, who plays the first son, whose performance is just correct. Now, that of June Squibb (Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is an altogether different story: she marvellously steals a handful of scenes by showing that Kate can be both a tyrant and a helper, bad-tempered but also warm and caring, and politically and socially incorrect, yet always aware of what’s really going on in people’s minds and hearts.

Shot in spectacular, smooth black-and-white (and accordingly nominated for Best Cinematography), Nebraska may look like a relapse to simpler times. In a way, it is. This is an age-old story of family, love and connections made and missed. It’s also a story about not always knowing how to understand the people you’ve loved all your life. Or how to love the people you don’t understand.

In any case, it’s an ostensibly small film that as it unfolds it lets you see all its delicate, full splendour.

Production notes

Nebraska. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Bob Nelson. Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Angela McEwan. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Edited by Kevin Tent. Music by Mark Orton. Produced by Albert Berger, George Parra. Running time: 115 minutes.

@PablSuarez
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