Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movie with Abe: Nebraska

Directed by Alexander Payne
Released November 15, 2013

Director Alexander Payne has a distinguished resume, and his projects are very diverse. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “The Descendants” could all be considered dramas or comedies, each dealing with serious issues, such as old age and adultery, and taking a light-hearted approach to its characters and their interactions. His latest work fits that bill well, a humor-filled story about an old man with a fading memory who sets off to claim a prize he believes he has won. “Nebraska” is a perfect entry in the Payne cannon, an occasionally funny, occasionally contemplative comedic drama.

Bruce Dern stars as Woody, a resident of Billings, Montana who receives a letter in the mail telling him he was won one million dollars, and that he must come to Lincoln, Nebraska to get his winnings. When his wife Kate (June Squibb) refuses to drive him, Woody sets out on foot to walk there. After he sees how important this trip is to his father, David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Nebraska, and their trip, with several unplanned stops along the way, is how this film comes together.

There are many layers to “Nebraska.” David’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend has fallen apart, and he works at a retail store selling electronics. His brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is the more successful one, earning a living as a TV news anchor. Though Woody and Kate’s relationship at present involves much complaining and arguing that might be expected of two octogenarians, it is clearly established that Woody was an alcoholic while his sons were growing up, and there are far more serious grievances to be addressed in the family.

Yet when Woody and David are forced to stay over with family in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, something incredible happens. As Woody walks around town to see if all he remembers is still there, he becomes a celebrity. Small-town folk are amazed by the fact that he hit it big, and, for once, he is the center of attention for a good reason. Under all that happiness and support, there also emerges a greed and feeling of entitlement from those who knew Woody when he was less fortunate, and the fact that the money is in all likelihood not real remains in the background as a foreboding promise of Woody’s inevitable decline.

In its best moments, “Nebraska” is an unexpectedly hilarious and heartwarming film about a different kind of family dynamic. Forte and Odenkirk are known for their TV roles, on “Saturday Night Live” and “Breaking Bad,” respectively, and here, they do exactly what is asked of them, portraying straight men to their far quirkier family members. Squibb is loud, unapologetically judgmental, and very funny as the uncensored Kate, and Dern hands in a magnificently focused performance as a man unable to grasp the smaller moments in his current life but absolutely aware of more overarching concepts. Payne’s choice to shoot his film in black-and-white helps bring out the simplicity of the film and its world, spotlighting Middle America and the idea rather than the logic of becoming a millionaire. “Nebraska” takes a fresh and funny approach to telling a fulfilling familiar story of old age and accomplishment.


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