Sunday, March 2, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Nebraska," or, Why Couldn't Alexander Payne Have Been from Iowa?

I was born and raised in Nebraska.
If one is from Nebraska, about which few movies are made, one might be expected to be grateful and like movies about Nebraska and that are even named "Nebraska."
 Mm.  No.

The state has actually been featured in a couple of notable shows in the last few years.  One is the director's earlier "About Schmidt" (Jack Nicholson); the other is "Up in the Air" (George Clooney; directed by Jason Reitman; George works for a company based in The Big O).   I'll have more to say about "About" later.
Where the cinematography of the landscape of the Western Great Plains -- formerly known as "The Great American Desert" before the explorers got to the real deserts further on, now known more charitably as the High Plains --  is the best thing about the movie, you've got a problem.
Alexander Payne is from Nebraska.  He is active in the cultural life of Omaha, for which he deserves much credit.  I'll get back to him.

But now, "Nebraska," the flick.

I didn't look at my wa -- wait, I did once.  But only once.  I wasn't bored.  It wasn't a terrible movie.

Neither was it a terribly good one. 

Let's start with Bruce Dern's performance, much praised.  I like Bruce Dern a lot.  Being Laura's pop makes him aces in my book, but that's not important now.  I first saw him in what has become something of a minor cult classic, "Silent Running."  I saw it in a preview at the York Square Cinema in New Haven.  Such a cool movie, and even a major environmental theme.  He played the gardener in a gigantic orbiting greenhouse, trying to save some of the last growing things on an Earth suffering through an apocalyptic conflict back on the surface.  He was fine, which was difficult when your chief costars are three robots named Huey, Louie, and Dewey. 

And he's the first bad guy ever to kill John Wayne in a movie, in "The Cowboys."  He's one of those actors that is just flat watchable.

But was his performance in "Nebraska" really that good?  He plays Woody Grant, an elderly Montana man who receives an obviously misleading notification that he has won $1 million in some kind of magazine sweepstakes and heads off, on foot, to claim it in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He tries several times and is retrieved by his long-suffering, not terribly successful son David (Will Forte). (I've been through something like this -- I had to care for an elderly relative who would call me every day or so, having received an ad or something in the mail that would throw him into a complete tailspin -- insurance come-ons were particularly concerning to him.)

His character is old, quiet, slow.  Impaired, although not in a tragic advanced-Alzheiemery kind of way.  More in a  .  .  .  lifelong alcoholic kind of way.  He is called upon not to emote, and in that he is successful.  Does that make it a great performance, to speak little, shuffle about, and to want to go to Nebraska?  It's a one-note part, and Dern plays it well, but its pretty much 110 minutes of staring, silence, and the occasional snarl at people trying to help him.

And this brings us to Woody's character as portrayed.  Payne doesn't know what this man is about.  Is he a dotty guy who just wants to buy a pickup truck (reasonable)?  Or is he, as he claims in one scene, and only one, someone who just wants to leave some money for his boys  (noble, high-minded)?  Or is he just batty (batty)?  Well, you say, he can be all these things.  No; it doesn't work.

This is the biggest false note in a movie that is full of them.  Let's take that letter from the sweepstakes people, the ignition for the entire plot.  Did anyone turn it over and read the back of it?  We find out that it explains exactly what is needed to win the million, and he didn't accomplish any of them.  When this is pointed out to him at the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, he seems to understand immediately.  An entire family uproots itself for this ridiculous quest, and everyone knows the notice is a come-on, but no one reads it out loud to the guy the day after he gets it and decides to walk to Nebraska? 

There's lots more:

The things that old people say to David about his father and mother and other family members, the sexual references -- no, wouldn't happen, and the words are wrong.

David's former girlfriend -- no.

Bob Odenkirk (Woody's other son Ross), a fine actor but one with one of the most unappealing speaking voices in modern entertainment and terrible hair, as a local network news anchor -- no.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) -- a dreadful, coarse harridan who heaps abuse on Woody's unkempt head (the Memsahib said to me, "Didn't anyone ever think to comb his hair?").  As an old-timer who came out of nowhere to get this plump role, Squibb's performance has been praised and rewarded with an Oscar nomination, but I thought it was cartoonish and shrill and unbelievable.  (In fairness, the script called for it and so, I suspect, did the direction.)  The tenderness in the hospital -- no, not based on what has come before.  That coarse gesture at the cemetery -- no.   

Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Bruce Dern
And, like another movie set on a vast plain ("August:  Osage County"), there is some effort to market this movie as a comedy -- I just heard someone on the Oscar show describe it as such.  And, like that other movie, reviewed below, it is not.  Is it a funny premise that a senile old drunk wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the stupidest of reasons?  It's OK to think so, but that premise is the only faintly amusing thing about this show.

Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways"):  He is celebrated for his Nebraska settings but it is not clear to me that he doesn't hold the Midwest way of life in some contempt.  "About Schmidt" had the same problem.  Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) himself is stupid, doesn't seem to know how pay phones work, is fascinated by the garbage sold at souvenir traps.  The people he encounters on his trip west through the state are not flatteringly portrayed.  That's OK -- sneering at Plains people is a legitimate artistic pose, although not one I admire or that makes any sense.

But this movie wants it both ways.  You can see it in that silhouette of Woody/Dern on the movie posters.  You can see it in the magnificence of the cinematography.  You can see it in the choice of dramatic, artsy (in a good way) black-and-white.   Payne signals that he wants the moviegoer to view the movie as a celebration of the nobility, or at least the humanity, of this seldom-portrayed slice of American life, the hopes and dreams of the elderly.  OK, I'm on board.  But it is surpassing odd that there is not a single appealing character in this entire show.  Even Will Forte, the son who indulges his father (who shows no affection for him whatsoever, save in that one off-tone scene where he mumbles that he wanted to leave him and Ross some money), is weak and whiny and dim.  And pining for a very unattractive departed girlfriend.

Woody doesn't love his children.  Woody's wife doesn't love Woody.  (Really?  You think that deep down, she does?  What is your evidence for that?)  Woody's relatives who he and David visit along the way are either near-dead or grasping and even criminal.

Is western Nebraska an attractive place to live?  (When it is not being photographed by Phedon Papamichael, that is.)  Well, it's a tough place -- some have suggested turning it back to the buffalo and quit trying to save it as a place for people to live.  (See Buffalo Commons.) But people live there, probably in about the same proportions of good and bad, slender and obese, loving and bitter, as most other places.  And likable and unlikable, but I can't find any evidence that Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have any affection for a single one of them.

Ultimately, as pretty as this picture is, I just didn't believe it.  Didn't believe it in its pieces, didn't believe the whole.

The Great Nebraska Movie, alas, has yet to be made.

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Anyone reading these last couple of reviews might think, oh, Steverino just thinks movies have to follow some kind of old-fashioned rules, and if they don't, then they're no good -- he doesn't like movies that are just about life, you know?  Stuff doesn't have to happen.

Could be, could be.  But let me explain myself a little.

There are certain elements to the enjoyment of storytelling that seem inherent to human nature.  Aristotle recorded them.  Critics have debated them for years.  But few deny them.    

"August:  Osage County" and "Nebraska" fail as good storytelling.  

They don't succeed as comedies because they are not funny.  

They don't succeed as dramas because they are not dramatic.  That is, there is no movement toward a dramatic climax, which can be any number of things -- self-realization, a plot resolution, the discovery of love, the change of a life.  That doesn't happen in either of these movies.  

In "Nebraska," there's built-in, literal movement upon which a journey of discovery could have been hung, but it doesn't happen.  We know to a certainty what is going to happen when Woody and David get to Lincoln.  And when they do, and Woody learns that he's not going to get the million he's been dreaming of, nothing changes for him.  He doesn't even seem disappointed.  (I have considered the possibility that Woody secretly knows this and that his voyage is for another hidden reason that is the real backbone of this film.  If so, it remains hidden.)    He accepts a hat (which plays a role in the final scene) from the sympathetic sweepstakes lady, and he and David leave.  David does something nice for Woody right after that, but Woody shows no appreciation whatsoever.  In fact, in that final scene, he visits a final humiliation on David, the only person in this movie who -- foolishly -- indulges Woody's silly demand.

One can enjoy a movie where the only merit is an amazing performance.  But you love the performance, not the movie.  Tell me a story.

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