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Nebraska (2013)

Fifty Million Shades of Gray

It's a good thing I hadn't seen Nebraska when I met Bruce Dern at a reception for the film's Chicago premiere last month. Our casual handshake might very well have been more of a sweaty hyper-crank kind of deal, with me battling to stay composed in the presence of someone who'd wowed me. His performance stands out in a year of wonderful performances. I suppose it helps that Alexander Payne's movie is brilliant, regardless.

Dern stars as Woody Grant, a retired Montana mechanic who receives a sweepstakes letter declaring him a millionaire. We meet him shambling along a busy road, on a long, winter walk to Nebraska to claim his prize. A cop returns Woody to his beleaguered wife, Kate (June Squibb), who enlists the help of her sons in talking some sense into her deluded, space-cadet husband. Ross, (Bob Odenkirk) a family man and aspiring local news anchor, wants to put Woody in a home. David (Will Forte), a recently single stereo salesman, thinks everyone's being too hard on his pop--and does his best to gently assure Woody that his beloved prize isn't real.

That doesn't work, of course. After more on-foot escape attempts, David agrees to drive his dad to Nebraska over a long weekend. They stop in Woody's home town for a bit, and get sucked into the vortex of bars that comprise its social scene. Against his son's advice, the old man lets slip the "news" and instantly becomes a hero--garnering attention from family, the local newspaper, and an old friend named Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Because Nebraska is light on plot, I'll quit describing it here. But keep in mind, this is an Alexander Payne road trip film--meaning secrets will be revealed, faces will be punched, and men who've never taken the time to self-actualize will discover themselves (and each other) through a series of pranks and misadventures that have little to do with their original mission.

Flippant as that sounds, Nebraska is gorgeous, sincere, and meaningful-with-a-capital-"M". Much of Payne's career has dealt with either road trips (About Schmidt, Sideways) or dysfunctional families (The Descendants); here, he continues to refine his feelings about both, and the results are at once familiar and revelatory. Granted, he didn't write the movie (that would be first-time-feature scribe Bob Nelson), but it's telling that the material is so of a piece with the director's body of work as to seem like another parallel-universe bubble bouncing about the Payne filmography.

Payne's vision of rural America is quiet, boring, and secretly begrudging of anyone who's made it out or made it big. The film offers a harsh commentary on the tried-and-true American values espoused by the heartland, but not in a way that feels preachy: the filmmakers don't suggest that everyone in these dust-swept towns are losers who have too few prospects to change their stars, but they certainly paint a convincing picture of those who might very well exist. Nebraska brims with fascinating ideas that we just don't see represented in popular culture: typically, the ambitious city slicker learns valuable life lessons during an unexpected sojourn in the sticks; here, we meet characters who have either resigned themselves to decades of televised sports and beer, or who will stop at practically nothing to get an un-earned leg-up in life (which they will likely piss away on new televisions and better beer).

If this sounds like a downer soapbox of a movie, I assure you it isn't. Nebraska is just as funny as it is thought-provoking and tender. The character dynamics are hilariously abrasive, and range from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive--particularly as Kate becomes more prominent in the story. She and Ross travel to the town where Woody and David have paused their trip.

Over the course of two days we plumb the depths of the matriarch's frustrations--which makes her unpleasantness no less intolerable, but at least they're understandable. Through tid-bits and reactions, we get a sense of the young Kate, a country girl with ideas greater than her upbringing, who was caught in the Grant family's eternal bad-luck vortex. She's developed a razor tongue and a short temper in the ensuing years, which help to illustrate just how directionless her inherited family really is.

My only gripe with the film is probably an unfair criticism. After months of watching well-observed, naturalistic comedies and dramas, such as Enough Said and The Spectacular Now, it's a bit jarring to watch something that is so clearly written. Nelson's dialogue is cute and has a definite rhythm to it, and I spent a half hour trying to convince myself that I wasn't somehow being manipulated. Luckily, this is a performance showcase and, to a person, the actors make their characters rich, entertaining, and relatable.

Which brings us back to Dern. Though I'd love to give him all the praise in the world for what is sure to be an attention-getting performance during awards season (he already made out big-time at Cannes), I can't help but think half the credit for Woody Grant must fall to Payne's long-time cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. His obsession with details makes every unflattering inch of Dern's puffy, grizzled, mile-long-nose-hair face as much a work of art as the black-and-white landscapes he visits during the film. These moving portraits of disappointment and buried tragedy belie the actor's half-engaged portrayal of the family laughingstock. Woody knows he's a life-long screw-up, and sees this phantom payday as a chance to make things right. All that's covered in a few lines of dialogue, but they arrive long after Dern's beautifully photographed face have told the tale.

Nebraska is one of the most entertaining and involving movies I've seen this year, but I hesitate to call it one of the best. Payne and company do very well in selling the Grants as a highly dysfunctional family who secretly love one another--but the film's climax is notably lacking in grand gestures. This boils down to personal preference, I suppose. But where my brain was tickled by all the goings-on, my heart was left as cold as a plains winter. This is a gorgeous, superbly acted, and very funny film with lots to say. But I'm not exactly itching to hitch a ride with Woody and David again anytime soon.

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