Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On the Road: NEBRASKA


In Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, an old man (Bruce Dern) in the early stages of aged confusion gets a piece of junk mail that says he has the chance to win $1 million. He thinks he’s won and needs to get from his Montana home to Lincoln, Nebraska (the mail’s return address) to claim his money. He’s all ready to walk there, seeing as he’s not well enough to drive and still hasn’t fixed up the busted pickup that’s been sitting in his garage for a decade. His younger of two grown sons (Will Forte) agrees to drive him, his older son (Bob Odenkirk) and wife (June Squibb) slowly shaking their heads at all this silliness. Forte calmly hears his mother’s objections as she asks why he won’t take her to see her sister instead of indulging his father’s figment of the imagination.

The dignity of the old man’s nonsense quest comes in simply allowing him a sense of purpose and good fortune, the removal of which would be awfully difficult anyway. Payne’s typical sweet-and-sour comic drama chops, on display in the likes of About Schmidt and The Descendents, serve Bob Nelson’s dryly observant road trip screenplay well as the man and his son stop off to see relatives along the way in domestic scenes so true I found myself thinking, I’ve been in those rooms! Conversation is terse, halting, transactional, loosely organized, understated, half-loving and half-prickly. My favorite exchange comes when Forte’s elderly aunt (Mary Louise Wilson) says his uncle’s foot’s been bothering him again. There’s a long pause before the man (Rance Howard) simply says, “Naw. Just hurts.”

It’s all so sharply moving and funny that by the time it concludes with a fuzzy and generous sense of tough Midwestern sentimentality, it’s very nearly earned. The resolution comes not so much from plot or a change in circumstance, but from a simple act of dignity allowed an old man who appreciates it with as much stoic befuddlement as he can be. Dern’s performance is real and creaky a picture of low-level confusion and unshakable delusion. Forte’s a fine low-key foil, exasperated by his father’s unshakable misunderstanding, but so full of loving affection that he’d rather protect his father from those circling to get a piece of the nonexistent prize and shelter him from those who’d make fun of the truth. That just might be a losing battle.

The ensemble – from Odenkirk and Squibb to the myriad small town relatives and acquaintances, including Stacy Keach with perfectly pitched arrogance – is so fully real and convincing there’s hardly a false note among them. Their dialogue is funny in the way your relatives (mileage with this comparison may vary) are funny, with unexpected detours, sudden surprise revelations presented matter-of-factly, conversational roundabouts, and wondrous colloquialisms. The false notes ring softly in the script as it falls into predictable road trip patterns and there’s scarcely a surprise on a story level. That kept it a tad on the narratively uninvolving side for me. The milieu is presented with such clarity and truth, the plot mechanics feel at times like nothing less than an unwelcome intrusion. But the characters feel so real that when the movie was at its best, I hardly cared. Nebraska is as prickly and unhurried as its characters, filmed in bracing black and white that casts it all in a fading glory. The past, endlessly picked and poked by being in old places with old relatives, may be gone, but there’s still dignity in allowing the old man to believe he’s rich. With a son like that, who is to say he isn’t?

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