Thursday, 16 January 2014

Nebraska

Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alexander Payne)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)
  • Best Actor (Bruce Dern)
  • Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb)
  • Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)

Woody Grant is a millionaire. Or at least that’s what the sweepstakes letter he received in the mail says, and he’s determined to walk the 850 miles from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Unfortunately, it’s a mail scam, and everyone including Woody’s son David knows it. However, Woody is determined, so David decides to humour him and take him on a road trip to Lincoln so Woody can see for himself. However, after an accident halfway through the journey, plans are made for David and Woody to return to Woody’s home town of Hawthorne in Nebraska for a family reunion. It’s there where we meet Woody’s family, Woody’s old friends, and David gets to know his dad a little better than he did, but maybe he’s about to find out too much…

Alexander Payne has carved out a niche for himself, creating a series of reflections on contemporary American life in his films through satirical, understated, lightly funny dramedies. Election reflects on American politics through a high school election, whilst examining what happened to Ferris Bueller when he grew up. About Schmidt reflects on old age and life in general, whilst Sideways reflects on friendships and relationships. After a while away, he came back with The Descendants (which I loved) which reflects on the impact of death and the monotony of life. He returns for this award season with Nebraska, a look at family and monotony in monotone. It’s strange to think that as popular as Payne and his films have become, this feels like he’s taking a step back to his independent roots, and to be honest, it’s a real joy to watch.

Payne has spent a lot of time reflecting on who he’s become as an auteur, focusing his films on relationships, friendships and monotony in an extravagant life. However, with Nebraska, it feels like he’s chosen someone else’s script where he’s able to return to his own roots and look back at where he came from, focusing on an eccentric father and an eclectic family, as well as returning to a home town, which is almost foreign compared to the life they lead at home. The town is different and behaves in a strange way, the family members are different and lead completely different lives run by a different set of rules. This is something I can certainly relate to, so no surprise that I related entirely to this film and loved it much like his other previous works. The awkwardness and the stubbornness that emerges when two different cultures clash under the pretence of a common denominator makes for an awkward yet laugh out loud funny viewing experience, as I believe I can attest to the fact that his portrayal of this kind of culture clash is so accurate it hurts.

The story itself is charming: Old man believes mail scam is real and sets out to claim a non-existent million dollars. Bruce Dern is unbelievably good in this, really. He may be old, but he plays even older and less-able in this film to the point where you feel the performance is rooted in real life, which based in recent media appearances is entirely untrue. You feel for the guy, he’s a loveable idiot character and an adorable pensioner character in rolled into one, it’s impossible not to root for Woody by the end of this one. Also great, June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, who is the archetypal matriarch of the family and refuses to stand for any of Woody’s nonsense, constantly belittling him in a way that make you feel as if she’s almost reminiscing for the days when Woody wasn’t as senile as he’s becoming. Also, great here is Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old business partner who tries extorting money. He’s unlikeable from the moment he hits the screen, and the character he plays only works in his favour, a real old school villain who you don’t often get to see on screen any more.

You know who isn’t good in this? Will Forte as the main supporting actor, playing David, Woody’s son. But you know who’s even worse, amazingly? Bob Odenkirk as Ross, Woody’s other son. Personally, I think they’re horribly mismatched in this film and their presence in the film undermines both the tone and the objectives of the film. This isn’t a super serious drama by any means, it is whimsical and light hearted for the most part, but Will Forte is meant to be playing a straight guy character that doesn’t play for laughs. That goes against everything he’s used to, and kudos to him for attempting to play against type for a change, but it doesn’t work, his performance is wooden and only gets better towards the end. Bob Odenkirk, however, is shockingly bad in this. You’d have thought that his experience in drama as Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman would have helped him, but he sticks out like a sore thumb in this. The performance is atrocious, just all over the place, extremely inconsistent and distracting whenever he’s on screen, and it breaks my heart to say it.

Overall though, this is a really charming film about small town life and the decisions you make in life, all told in typical Payne manner. The older actors and actresses are who steal the show and carry the film to its conclusion, as well as develop most of the plot points. It seems very deliberate that the younger people are along for the older people’s ride in this film, rather than the usual vice versa, which is a good take on the parent-child road trip and one which works for the kind of tone they are aiming to achieve with this film, which I have to say, they get right throughout. The cinematography is lovely, vividly capturing a barren part of America whilst not stealing focus from the performances, and the dialogue is witty, snappy and realistic. It’s a feel good story with a sentimental side without becoming overly gooey and cliché ridden, which is absolutely OK with me.

Rating: ****

Nebraska was released on 6th December 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.