Monday, November 18, 2013
Alexander Payne is the director of "Citizen Ruth," "Sideways," and "The Descendants." And now he's made a good movie.
"Nebraska" stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a Billings, Montana man who receives a mailer stating "We are authorized to pay one million dollars to Woody Grant of Billings, Montana." He keeps the letter in his shirt pocket and starts walking off toward the sweepstakes office in Lincoln to claim his prize. Will Forte plays his son, David, who sells stereos and home electronics to people who can't really afford them. David picks his dad up along the side of the road a few times and finally decides to indulge him and drive him to Lincoln, maybe his last chance at bonding and quality time before Woody goes all the way around the bend.
On their way, they pass through tiny Hawthorne, where Bruce used to own an auto garage with Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). They drop in on David's aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) and Uncle Ray (Rance Howard), and his enormous cousins Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray). Cole's back from a stint in stir for sexual assault, and within five minutes of their arrival, he's telling David, "Bitch lied through her teeth." David tells them it took him two days to drive the 750 miles from Billings, upon which Bart notes he once made it in seven hours. "Yeah," Cole says, "he was really moving."
David implores Woody not to talk about the notional money prize, but by the time he comes out of the bathroom, the whole family's raising a toast to Nebraska's newest millionaire. And word gets around town fast. Ed wants some of the money he says he lent Woody (David: "What's the statute of limitations on bullshit?"), and extended relations pop up to claim their purported shares. It's at this point that Woody's harridan wife, Kate (June Squibb), shows up to put an end to the whole out-of-control ruse.
There are characters in "Nebraska" we laugh with: first and foremost, Woody and David. Forte holds his own with Dern, his performance quiet and unobtrusive, almost one long sigh. Keach is also terrific, bringing jovial menace to the villainous Ed Pegram. And Angela McEwan has one lovely scene as Peg Nagy, Woody's girlfriend in his youth, who now runs the town newspaper and plans a piece on the returning local hero.
As always in Payne's films, there are also characters we laugh at: the cousins (practically on loan from "Deliverance"), the hard-of-hearing and half-senile oldsters, and especially Kate, who's made it her life's work to scream and curse at Woody, reveals the sordid sex secrets of every deceased family member at the cemetery they visit, and ultimately tells all the vultures in town to go fuck themselves. It's as broad a caricature as Momma in "Throw Momma From the Train," and Squibb may well be this year's Anne Ramsey - the most likely Oscar nominee from the film besides Dern.
Payne is not and will never be a director who loves his characters. He will gladly sacrifice their integrity for a cheap laugh, as when Woody and David finally arrive at the sweepstakes office and the clerk tells them the number on Woody's mailer isn't one of the grand prize winners. Woody walks out with a hat she finds for him, and David stays to talk for a minute. "Does this happen a lot?" he asks. "Sometimes," she replies, "usually older folks like your dad. Does he have Alzheimer's?" "No," David says, "he just believes things people tell him." "Aw," she replies, "that's too bad." That's a bad piece of writing by scripter Bob Nelson.
Like the gorgeous cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, Payne's worldview isn't so much black and white as black or white, with few grays. The movie's all darkened motel rooms and glaringly bright skies above wide-open plains. What makes "Nebraska" work is that, while we're mostly laughing at these folks, we're laughing a lot. I had tears coming out of my eyes almost the whole time Squibb was onscreen, including one scene where she has to improvise when some old Hawthorne neighbors inexplicably find her and Woody in a car by their barn.
The movie ambles along at its own pace - yes, if you have the attention span of a gnat, you'll be bored - and ends with a terrific scene in which Woody gets to drive a new truck down the short main drag of Hawthorne, past Ed Pegram and Peg Nagy, past the man who's parked his lawn chair by the roadside every day for decades, and back toward Billings. Once he's had his moment of glory, he stops the truck and he and David change places.