Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Views of "Nebraska": Spending Time with Ordinary People

Eric's View of Nebraska

     Alexander Payne’s Nebraska fortifies his reputation as this generation’s Frank Capra.  He takes the little guy and presents him, eccentric warts and all, in a way that simultaneously humanizes and satirizes his niche in his
milieu.  Capra hedged his bets by casting Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper and, though after It Happened One Night he took sex and romance right out of his movies, he treated his leads as stars in terms of how they looked and were presented.  Payne takes stars like Jack Nicholson, Matthew Broderick, George Clooney, and Laura Dern and both makes them look like hell and drains away any idealized, romantic vision of them.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte
     Yes, Payne focuses on stories that are rarely told because they’re about ordinary people and textures them with basic conflicts represented through vignettes or shaggy dog stories that are emotionally complex.  The problem for me with Nebraska was that I wasn’t enthusiastic about spending two hours with Bruce Dern’s character, who we first see walking along the highway from Billings, Montana, to claim his publishing sweepstakes prize in Lincoln, Nebraska.  His wife, played by veteran performer June Squibb and older son, played by tough comic actor Bob Odenkirk, think he should be put in a home, (I didn’t disagree with them) while the younger son, acted with sensitivity and as a genuine small-city schlub by former SNL performer Will Forte, empathizes and willingly humors his father’s off-beat adventure.  

     Having seen Payne’s other work, nothing surprised me in this movie, though I assumed it was supposed to be more serious because it’s filmed in black and white.  As my Mom would say, “It felt like a documentary.”  This generally means it was realistic and not entertaining.  The performances are entrancing, especially Dern and Squibb in very difficult roles because they are almost alienating in their starkness.  It’s only as the movie progresses that we see how the two characters play the same piece, though they aren’t in tune.  Both are deserving of the accolades they’ve received (Fortis has been unjustly ignored), but Squibb especially deserves the Academy Award because she fully fleshes out a character that the film’s villain (Stacy Keach looking like a cross between late British character actor Peter Bull and Jabba the Hutt) describes as ‘a bitch.’  

Aunt Martha, Uncle Ray and Sons
     I also liked seeing Mary Louise Wilson as the chirpy, hardworking aunt with two of the most unpleasant sons imaginable.  Yes, there are families with such members and we’ve all known them, but I don’t want to visit them in a movie either.  Technically, this is a beautifully made and emotionally rich work that doesn’t traffic in the sentimental euthanasia of On Golden Pond.  However, it doesn’t expand Payne’s thematic vision or visual style.  His strongest work may still be the bittersweet ‘14th arrondissement’ section of Paris, je t’aime (2006) that feels like Chekhov.  As Lisa pointed out, part of it may be that I’m not that fond of father/son stories, unless it was Gary Cole and Robert Breuler tearing apart the second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof years ago at Steppenwolf.

Neil's View of Nebraska

      I would imagine all of us at one time or another have thought about becoming a millionaire.  It's the American dream!  For Woody Grant, it was an obsession after receiving a letter in the mail that required him to pick up his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska.  But did he really need to become a millionaire?  What were his basic needs?  Those were the central questions answered on the journey taken in Nebraska.

June Squibb as Kate Grant
      At the heart of the movie were the performances.  They're character studies of people we have all known in our families or communities.  Woody, played by Bruce Dern, was a man of few words.  In fact, his performance relied mainly on his body language and facial expressions.  They were brilliant.  His wife was Kate (June Squibb) in a role most 84-year-old actors would aspire to play.  Her coarse and non-filtered lines were priceless.  This was equally a movie about her feelings as much as her husband's.  Will Forte was the son that takes the road trip to Lincoln with his father.  Along the way, they stop to visit family and friends that presented stories from the past and some unresolved issues.  Although their intentions may have been questionable, their performances were all award worthy.

Dexter in Nebraska with Dern and Forte
      There was a lot of symbolism in Nebraska.  Dern's wiry hair looked like the leafless tree silhouettes in the landscapes.  The roadways represented the ups and downs in our lives.  The black & white cinematography was the ultimate paring down of getting to the core of our needs.  Even the setting and title, Nebraska, illustrated the centrality of what the movie was all about.  On a personal note, I found more coincidences.  I had a former boss that was from Nebraska.  His name was Woody too.  He decided to go back to Lincoln to become the president of Arbor Day Foundation.  As Bruce Dern and Will Forte crossed the state border, the sign read "Welcome to Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day".  Eric and I chuckled.  Woody was looking for a simpler life, which I'm sure he found, but we found it ironic that there are so few trees in Nebraska.

Ordinary People
      The film was slow and deliberate, but I never felt it dragged.  Instead, I couldn't help but think that these were real people and there are a lot just like them close to our homes.  They're not glamorous, but they are people, and I found it enlightening that Alexander Payne would tell their stories.

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