By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Alexander Payne usually walks a fine line between satire of and contempt for his characters. When he’s on the right side of it, like in About Schmidt or, for the most part, The Descendants, you get characters whose foibles feel like logical extensions of real people. When he’s on the wrong side, his loathing for the people in his films leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Bitter would have been the perfect title for this one
Nebraska seemed like prime fodder for the bitter treatment, as it’s about an old Montanan man who receives a “You’re a Winner!” scam letter in the mail and resolves to go to Nebraska to collect his million dollars, even if he has to walk the whole damn way. Seeing this, and figuring on an opportunity for some father & son time, his son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him there.
Payne is from the Midwest (Omaha), as am I, and instead of pouring on stereotypes of clueless Red State hicks and strip mall America, he and screenwriter Bob Nelson use their backgrounds to (mostly) create realistic, empathetic characters. The cast chosen to embody them does a sterling job. Will “Magruber” Forte shows acting chops you’d never guess were there, delivering a natural, grounded performance that may well make him “Oscar Nominee Will Forte.” Ever thought you’d hear that?
Of course, “Two-time Oscar Nominee Jonah Hill” is a distinct possibility this year, too
Stacy Keach can do intimidating in his sleep, and uses it to good effect here, Bob Odenkirk is his always welcome self, and June Squibb steals more than her share of comedic scenes with her take-no-shit, but deliver plenty attitude wrapped in Grandma’s body. It’s Bruce Dern that’s closest to a statue, though, and while I felt his man of few words bit becomes one-note at times, he’s undeniably created a unique, fleshed-out character who fits the film perfectly, and whose face makes for one of the best posters of the year to boot.
I’d hang that on my wall
On the technical side, Payne’s decision in black and white is a good one, accentuating old and new as a new Subaru drives through pastoral scenes straight out of Paper Moon. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael uses this constraint to deliver some of the best camerawork of the year, and Mark Orton’s spare, folk-influenced score is a standout. It took a minute, but I really came around on the script as well, as its unhurried pace and low-key revelations reminded me of David Lynch’s excellent (and slightly better) The Straight Story, keeping the focus on the characters instead of cheap dramatics (again, mostly).
So, you may have noted some caveats so far. The script takes a minute to find its feet, and scenes like Forte and his ex talking are a bit stilted and stagy. A late moment of mild violence is one of those cheap dramatic ploys I commended them for avoiding earlier, and pretty fucked up when you think about it. Oh, and the two cousins are cartoon characters that apparently thought they were in another movie entirely.
The Two Stooges isn’t a thing that I recall
It’s not perfect, but Nebraska does so much right, that I can’t help but like it. It’s a funny, assured, and very human character piece that numbers among this year’s best.
Take a Drink: this may prove fatal, but every time there’s a blank expression on someone’s face
Take a Drink: when somebody gets called a moron
Take a Drink: for every escape attempt
Do a Shot: piss break!
Do a Shot: for paying your respects to the dead