Friday, December 13, 2013
Opening today at an art house near me:
NEBRASKA (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)
At one point in this excellent film, I was reminded of a bit that I saw late night talk show host/comedian Craig Ferguson do last month at the Carolina Theatre about how you can get away with saying practically anything cruel by saying “I’m not judging, I’m just being honest.”
As Bruce Dern’s long suffering wife, June Squibb is reminiscing out loud in a cemetery about folks she used to know in the film’s fictional small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. In the mist of her blunt takedowns of the not so dearly departed she remarks of her husband’s sister: “I liked Rose, but my god, she was a slut!”
Comic actor Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MACGRUBER), as Dern and Squibb’s son, snaps “Mom, come on,” but Squibb simply states “I’m just telling the truth” and continues her trash talking walk through the headstones.
It’s a fitting line, for NEBRASKA, Alexander Payne’s follow-up to his much more commercial George Clooney vehicle THE DESCENDANTS isn’t judging its characters, it’s being honest about them. Its simple premise of Dern’s protagonist Woody Grant erroneously thinking he’s won a million dollars sweepstakes because of a piece of junk mail hawking magazine subscriptions superbly sets up a bunch of bluntly funny scenes, made all the more sharper by being shot in black and white.
Working with first time screenwriter Bob Nelson’s words, Payne gives us a road movie in the vein of ABOUT SCHMIDT (my personal favorite Payne), which bleeds through in such moments as Dern revisiting locations from his youth (the auto shop he used to co-own, his former watering hole, etc.). Shades of Nicholson’s Schmidt walking into The Tires Plus store that stands on the site of his childhood home for sure.
Despite the protests of mother Squibb (another SCHMIDT factor as she was the wife in that too) Forte opts to drive his ornery out-of-it father from their Billings, Montana home to the lottery office in Lincoln, Nebraska. They stop in Hawthorne for a family reunion, which includes a terrific turn by Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad) as Forte’s older newscaster brother, the soft spoken Rance Howard (a great grizzled character actor who’s been in everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Seinfeld) as Dern’s brother, and Mary Louise Wilson (another recognizable longtime veteran of the big and small screen) as Howard’s wife.
A slimy Stacy Keach as Dern’s former auto mechanic partner makes it well known that he wants a cut of Dern’s winnings, as do ne-er-do-well nephews Devin Natray and Tim Driscoll, who have some of the film’s funniest moments especially in a scene where they mock Forte for how long it took him to drive the 750 miles from home to Hawthorne (Driscoll: “Two goddamn days from Billings!”).
It's a career best for Dern, once one of New Hollywood's shining lights of '70s cinema, who definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for his role as the ole codger drunkard, but Squibb steals large chunks of the movie with her fearless bluster. A scene in which she tells off the folks, “vultures” she calls them, clamoring for their cut of Dern's supposed winnings with a resounding f-bomb alone should get her a nomination nod from the Academy.
It's also great to see another side of Forte, as a somewhat beaten down smalltime stereo salesman dealing with a recent break up with his girlfriend of two years (Missy Doty). Forte's effective everyman embarking on a trip to bond with his father, and for a change of scenery resonates beautifully.
Speaking of scenery, the wide lonely spaces of the spare Midwestern settings that surround these sad characters look stunning through the lens of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also shot Payne's SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS. Anyone's who's traveled across country through the empty terrains of America will get the ambience Payne is going for.
I felt right at home with the authentic tone of NEBRASKA. It has more genuine laughs than most comedies, and more heartfelt humanity than most dramas. It's a near perfect piece of major Payne that makes most of its indie competition this year look pretty shallow. And you know, I'm not judging - I'm just telling the truth.