Thursday, October 24, 2013

“Nebraska” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the comedy-drama “Nebraska”, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk


When an elderly man heads to Nebraska to collect a prize he mistakenly thinks he’s won, will his family be able to convince him he’s wrong or will he somehow be able to prove he’s right?


On a bitterly cold autumn morning, Woody (Dern) sets out from his humble home in Billings, Montana to get to Lincoln, Nebraska – except he’s making the trip on foot! The reason for this old man’s trek is to collect a one million dollar cash prize he incorrectly believes he has been awarded. When he’s discovered before he could get very far, both of his grown sons – David (Will Forte) and Ross (Odenkirk) – try to painstakingly explain to him that Woody is sadly mistaken. Piling on is his long-time wife Kate (June Squibb), a crusty, mean-spirited hag who isn’t above seasoning her vocabulary with salty language. Undeterred, Woody maintains he is correct, showing them the document he received as proof – actually, a piece of junk mail a marketing company apparently sent out to many others as a way of soliciting magazine subscriptions.

Seeing that Woody will stubbornly stick to the belief that he’s a newly-minted millionaire, David decides that the only way his father will ever come to realize the bitter truth is to actually take him to Lincoln to try to pick up his prize. Taking a few days off from work, David puts Woody into his car and drives him on their excursion to Lincoln. Along the way, they make another stop in Nebraska to visit some relatives in Hawthorne. When Woody lets it slip that he’s just won a million dollars, the news quickly spreads across this small town and soon, both extended family members and former acquaintances are pestering him for money.

David is unsuccessful in persuading everyone to believe that Woody is in error, even when he is joined in Hawthorne by Ross and Kate, who likewise make similar attempts on their own. Complicating matters is Ed (Keach), an ex-business partner of Woody’s, who steadfastly insists that Woody has owed him a considerable amount of money for quite a few years; when David tells him Woody won’t be paying up any time soon, Ed threatens the family in an effort to seek a payday of some sort. After resuming their travel, will David be able to talk Woody into returning to Billings or will Woody wind up being humiliated upon arrival in Lincoln?


Having directed some of my favorite films – namely, “Election”, “Sideways” and “The Descendants” – I greatly looked forward to seeing Alexander Payne’s latest, “Nebraska”, which recently played here at The New York Film Festival (although I missed it then). While devastatingly funny in a number of scenes (particularly those with June Squibb’s portrayal of a crotchety, long-suffering wife), it is probably not going to be ranked among the director’s greatest – although it is quite a good film, make no mistake. Unfortunately, many of its themes feel like retreads of other movies I’ve seen over the years; while it’s quite humorous and the performances are good, “Nebraska” would probably be a borderline recommendation.

Payne’s “Nebraska” touches on aging, parenthood, alcoholism, greed, petty behavior in the flyover states and a number of other subjects, all of which are cleverly intertwined throughout the movie – certainly, a tribute to its director’s storytelling capabilities. And yet it seems like we’ve watched this all before, except for the actors’ near-catatonic countenance when they crack their snarky jokes. The characters are at once both hilarious and pathetic, not unlike the rest of us. But even after David explains his reasons for embarking on this parental road trip, you’re still left a little believe it or understand how he could afford to miss work for several days. Earlier in the motion picture, you either buy into the premise of the journey or you don’t – and if you don’t, then you may quickly fall out of the story itself altogether.

What may not have helped was the fact that “Nebraska” is in black and white; Payne was a little (intentionally?) vague on this particular topic in one interview (here). Maybe it was done to accentuate the drab life its characters inhabit – but a black and white feature is something that might make for a tough sell to audiences outside of the usual art film crowd. If this movie garners nominations for The Golden Globe or The Academy Award, that might help its visibility. The stoic nature of Midwesterners is self-evident in “Nebraska” – but for some, it may be emotion so underplayed that it could be elusive.


Nebraska (2013) on IMDb 7.6/10467 votes


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