Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: Nebraska

Image courtesy of Paramount Vantage.
Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" delivers all the typical acerbic banter, deadpan delivery and poignancy that you might expect upon approaching one of the filmmaker's works, even if it doesn't quite rank with his finest movies - "Sideways" and "About Schmidt."

In the film, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a somewhat out of sorts midwesterner who drinks hard - and pretends not to - and seemingly wants little out of life. One day, he receives in the mail one of those type of sweepstakes scams telling him he has won a million dollars that most of us would throw away.

But, no, Woody is determined to collect his prize, which means he'll have to travel two states over to Lincoln, Nebraska because he doesn't trust having that much money shipped through the postal service. His wife, Kate ( a terrifically potty-mouthed June Squibb), is exasperated with him, but his younger son, David (Will Forte, playing wonderfully against type), decides there's no harm in letting his old man, who appears beaten down by life, have a little fun. The two men take a road trip - a staple of Payne's movies - to collect the nonexistent prize.

But the two are waylaid due to circumstances, resulting in their making a trip back to the town where Woody grew up. They are joined there by Kate and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's older son who is an aspiring news anchorman.

Hollywood films have - for the most part - long presented a view of midwesterners as good-hearted, noble and hardworking folks, but Payne - who hails from Nebraska - appears to poke fun at that notion in his latest film. Woody's scheming relatives, who all know of his supposed fortune, all line to remind him of the good deeds they once did for him in order to nab a bit of his winnings. Some (Stacy Keach, playing an old business partner) present veiled threats, while others resort to violence. In one of the film's best - and funniest - sequences, Kate lays in to them during a family reunion, of sorts.

While "Nebraska" is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and often deeply felt picture, it is more of a minor work in Payne's oeuvre. But I believe the filmmaker was aiming for a more simplistic narrative here and it works. And, "12 Years a Slave" aside, I doubt you'll find a more poignant moment in any picture this year than Woody and David's final ride through town, of which I won't give any details.

An often cited cliche is the one on how life isn't about the destination, but rather the journey. In the case of "Nebraska," the destination is an obvious letdown - though you'll likely get a laugh out of the consolation prize Woody collects - but the journey in this case is the joie de vivre for Payne's eccentric, but soulfully recognizable, characters.

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