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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Nebraska

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a man with a potentially deteriorating mental condition, receives a letter in the mail from a Magazine Clearinghouse claiming that he's won a million dollars. After the police pick him up on the side of the road, walking to Billings, Montana; his son David (Will Forte) decides to take a few days off of work and drive him there, though David and his mother (June Squibb) are both fully aware that this is a scam letter. It's a road trip film not unlike others that Alexander Payne has crafted (The Descendents, Sideways), as a kind of blend of familial drama and comedy of the absurd. Where Nebraska falters though is within the latter, which is disappointing as the former is quite stirring and anchored by one of the best leading performances of the year.

Shot completely in black and white, Nebraska takes on a backwater version of a Rockwellian landscape, with pictures being painted that wouldn't be out of place in Time Magazine's in-depth looks at the crumbling aspects of rural America. The film careens high-brow and low-brow sensibilities and in places it works rather well, particularly when it strives for a melancholic tone. The first, and stronger half of the film, is comprised mostly of David and Woody either in discussion of the letter in question, the crumbling of David's own personal life, or on the road trip that would eventually lead them to the town in which Woody grew up. There's a good deal of quiet power in scenes of David taking care of his father after he cracks his forehead open or looking for Woody's teeth that he lost on the rail road tracks in whatever run-down town they happened to be stopped in. 

While Forte is solid enough in these scenes and throughout the running time, he's basically a passive observer and an audience surrogate. Where Nebraska shines brightest is in the performance of Dern. Long-known as a character actor, Nebraska is one of the few cracks that the 77 year old veteran has had the leading spotlight. Dern completely envelops himself into the role, capturing the essence of an old drunk that has deep rooted pain in his past, and something equally tragic coming into his future. Woody is short-tempered and stubborn, and only in fits and starts is he a sympathetic character, but Dern's performance zeroes in on the realities of the character without veering into caricature. If only the rest of the cast that surrounded him had been so well drawn.

While the first half of the film is your standard father-son road trip, with all the trappings and pathos that tried and true combination employs. It's when the film decides to detour into the town in which Woody's and David's extended family reside that the drama begins to take more of a back seat for the gawking style of comedy that Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson seek to delve into. Suddenly, David and Woody are overrun by an army of yokels from the town, either wanting to get a glimpse of the "millionaire" that's in their presence or want their own piece of pie. There's a particular level of venom that it feels like Payne may be aiming at small-town life in how these townsfolk are portrayed. No one is clever enough to actually question what it was that Woody actually won after word spreads of his "good fortune", then again this is of little surprise as each of these supporting characters are crafted as witless, venal morons. 

While most of these characters spend their time slack-jawed, watching football on television, a few stand-out but not in a way that can be deemed positive. For example, the old business partner (Stacy Keach) who demands the money he feels he's owed, or the cousin whose defining characteristic is that he did jail time for sexual assault. Perhaps the worst off though, is Squibb's portrayal of David's mother, who feels as though she came from a completely different movie; constantly complaining of the "town sluts" she knew and flashing her goods at the cemetery tombstone of an old paramour, the character is likely the most repelling part of the entire film and this is saying something considering the recklessness of the central protagonist both in the present and in his unfortunate past.

The humor throughout is so ill-timed and considered, that it takes the return of what made the material shine in the beginning to return Nebraska's heartbeat. A scene taking place within the childhood home of Woody's, where he passively walks through his old bedroom and the bedroom of his parents, and describes the level of discipline employed by his father, is quite moving, and speaks to the issues with the conception of the film. Payne and Nelson had a clear story in mind of a father and a son, and the painful past that they both hope to leave behind, and while this overarching plot has its merits, its what they opted to fill the gaps in with that just doesn't work on any level.

Nebraska is a compelling, effective drama, it's also a broad comedic misfire that's about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. A tremendous central performance that will get its due, there isn't much else to see here.

I give it a C+
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