Friday, November 29, 2013

Nebraska: A memorable trip

Nebraska (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and vulgarity

By Derrick Bang

I’ve been waiting 40 years for Bruce Dern to snag this sort of role.

And so, I would imagine, has he.

When David (Will Forte, left) insists on seeing the house where his father Woody (Bruce
Dern, center left) grew up, the building's sad, dilapidated and abandoned state aptly
mirrors Woody's dismay over the lifetime of disappointment that haunts him. Woody's
wife Kate (June Squibb) takes advantage of this excuse to dredge up unpleasant
memories, while David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) warily watches his combative
parents, wondering if they'll flare into another squabble.
The American film industry has no shortage of unsung and underappreciated actors, male and female. Some carve out respectable careers as supporting players: familiar faces who, with their mere presence, immediately raise the quality of a given movie. Jack Warden, George Sanders, Joan Cusack, Shelley Winters and George Kennedy come to mind.

Others work just as hard but never quite achieve name-brand recognition: forever hoping for that one golden shot that’ll make all the difference, usually retiring into obscurity without having had that chance.

Thanks to Nebraska, Dern is one of the lucky ones.

Until now, he has been the stalwart second banana in projects as varied as Smile, The Great Gatsby, All the Pretty Horses and Coming Home, the latter earning him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Leading roles have been few, but I’ve never forgotten the intensity of his essentially solo turn in 1972’s Silent Running (a sci-fi entry dismissed as preposterous at the time, which has become more uncomfortably prophetic with every passing year).

Dern brought life not only to his own role in that cautionary tale, but also to the three boxy, robotic “drones” that — thanks to his persuasive performance — developed their own individual personalities. No small feat, decades before CGI magic was even a gleam in anybody’s eye.

Even then, Dern was a master of earnest, heartbreaking passion, imbuing his sad-sack characters with the forever chagrined intensity of the eternally downtrodden and disenfranchised. Men who nonetheless cling to even the faintest hope, no matter how preposterous.

A great work of art doesn’t emerge from an empty canvas, of course; Nebraska also owes its deliciously biting charm to its rich script from newcomer Bob Nelson — a remarkable big-screen debut — and the sensitive, perfectly modulated direction of Alexander Payne, who has delighted us with misfit sagas such as Sideways, Election and The Descendants.

Payne usually writes or collaborates on the scripts for his film; Nebraska marks the first time he has fully surrendered the screenplay chores. But it’s easy to see why; Nelson’s droll premise and mordant execution display the same slow-burn humor and slightly left-of-center sensibilities, while granting us a central character every bit as stubborn, irascible and resolutely unlovable as Jack Nicholson’s title character in Payne’s About Schmidt.

Tone is everything in Payne’s films, and Nebraska could be considered Fargo on downers: somewhat quieter and slower, but every bit as rich with Midwestern quirks and slow-drawlin’ ambiance.

Our first glimpse of Woody Grant (Dern) finds him doggedly walking alongside a freeway exiting modern-day Billings, Montana, much to the consternation of the police officer who “rescues” the old duffer for his own safety. When son David (Will Forte) comes to collect him, he learns that his father believes that he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes, based solely on one of those deceptively worded “congratulatory letters” that litter mailboxes across the country.

As a result, Woody is determined to reach the sweepstakes company’s office in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since he can’t drive — his license having been yanked years ago, due to his alcoholism (a affliction he refuses to acknowledge) — he’ll walk, if necessary. And if anybody stops him, he’ll simply start again, at earliest opportunity.

David understands the problem: “Woody believes what people tell him,” he says at one point, sadly and with resignation.

Woody’s tart-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb), is far beyond such nonsense, and has given up trying to control her husband. We pity Kate at first blush, for what she must have tolerated for so many years. But as this saga percolates, and Kate’s true nature emerges — in all its frequently nasty, jaw-dropping bluntness — we can’t help feeling sorry for Woody, unpleasant as he is.

Woody’s behavior aside, we gradually realize that he grieves over what has been an unfulfilled life, with not that many years remaining. Raising two sons apparently hasn’t been enough — David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is a rising news anchor at a local TV station — and Woody wants more ... something significant. Like being the lucky winner of a million bucks.

Although his relationship with Woody is estranged to say the least, David — who works a dead-end job as a sales clerk in a home entertainment store — likely sees his own future in his father’s despairing gaze, and the picture isn’t pretty. It therefore isn’t a total surprise when David offers to drive his father to Lincoln, even though he knows the trip will end in disappointment.

And so begins a most unlikely road trip, punctuated by a lengthy stop in Hawthorne, the flyspeck Nebraska town where Woody grew up and married Kate, and where a sizable chunk of the Grant family remains. This extended middle act broadens the character tapestry, while fueling an increasingly acerbic view of small-town America. Rarely has monosyllabic dialogue been played to such successfully hilarious effect. (Well, yes, Fargo and Frances McDormand’s nasal “You betcha!” come to mind.)

I suppose it’s rather mean-spirited to poke such fun at these slow-moving hayseeds, but goodness, you can’t deny the hilarity. By far the funniest are David’s no-account cousins, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray): two chubby couch potatoes whose combined IQs couldn’t escape double digits. Despite being total losers, their mother — Mary Louise Wilson’s Aunt Martha — dotes on them no less, even though one of them has done time.

“It was sexual assault, not rape,” Martha explains, with utter sincerity, to a curious relation. “He can explain the difference better than I can.”

Martha’s husband — one of Woody’s many brothers — is played to dry, granite-faced perfection by Rance Howard (Ron’s father).

The atmosphere in Hawthorne becomes combustible when Woody shares his “big news,” and of course everybody assumes that David’s efforts at truth are merely an attempt to keep a lid on things, lest greedy friends and family members suddenly scuttle from the woodwork. Which, of course, is exactly what happens; none is worse than smarmy, glad-handing Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody’s long-ago business partner.

This stewpot of characters brews and simmers, eventually boiling over in all sorts of delightful directions. We even get a spontaneous “caper” that evokes fond memories of Paul Giamatti’s clandestine effort to retrieve Thomas Haden Church’s wallet, in Sideways.

Throughout all this, despite the single-mindedness of Woody’s behavior, Dern displays the rich emotional depths of the beautifully depicted figures in a Norman Rockwell painting. Watch Dern’s face during a tense moment with Keach’s Pegram, as the latter cruelly reveals a long-buried secret from Woody’s often reckless past, much to David’s consternation. Dern’s features droop gelatinously into absolute shame, his defiance washed away.

But it’s a complicated scene, with Forte bringing just as much subtlety to David’s reaction. He should be furious with his father over this revelation, and yet David is far angrier with Pegram, for the spiteful betrayal. It’s a familiar dynamic: “I’m the only one who’s allowed to criticize my [fill in the blank], dammit; you shut your mouth!”

Forte will be recognized as a long-running part of Saturday Night Live, along with ongoing supporting roles in TV shows such as 30 Rock. Nothing in his background would suggest a capacity for this sort of restrained and delicate dramatic work, and yet he holds his own with Dern, suggesting emotional multitudes with silent, resigned and pitying stares. At the end of each day, David finds that he cannot hate his father, much as Woody might deserve such condemnation.

Indeed, this story grants several characters their displays of minor heroism. Even Squibb’s frequently spiteful Kate has a moment of triumph.

Phedon Papamichael’s luxurious black-and-white cinematography is an expressive character in its own right, particularly as we amble along Hawthorne’s dilapidated streets, or venture within the cramped confines of its local newspaper office. Needless to say, this film demands a monochromatic approach; glorious color would ruin it.

Mark Orton’s score is also perfect for this material; he’s best known as a member of the eclectic chamber group Tin Hat Trio, and his gentle music here evokes all the lamentation and heartbreak of lost opportunities and dead-end lives.

Nebraska isn’t for all tastes. Payne’s approach is leisurely to the point of somnambulance, and stretches of the 115-minute film are very, very s-l-o-w. The mostly naturalistic tone also slides into unwanted burlesque at times, particularly with respect to Bart and Cole. A story of this nature requires careful balance, and — to his credit — Payne mostly succeeds. But not quite always.

Still, you’ll be moved and greatly impressed by Dern’s lead performance, and his unforgettable depiction of a truly lost soul clinging desperately to the wreckage of his own life.

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