Thursday, December 12, 2013

Further on Down the Road: Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska stars the 77-year-old Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a shambling, broken-down wreck of a man, whose thought processes are clouded by age and years of alcoholism. Woody would probably be spending his declining years sitting on the couch with a beer in his paw, with his inner radio tuned to a frequency that just barely picks up the bitching of his wife, Kate (June Squibb). But he’s received a piece of junk mail that seems to promise him a million dollars, and he gets setting off on foot, trying to get from his Billings, Montana home to the offices of Cornhusker Marketing and Promotions, Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska, so he can collect. (He doesn’t trust the mail.)

Woody has two sons, David (Will Forte), who works in a store selling audio equipment, and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who is this family’s version of a go-getter: he does reports for the local news, and has recently been given the chance to serve as anchorman, when the regular newsreader gets sick. David, whose girlfriend has just dumped him, looks like a complete sad sack, resigned to settling into a lousy job and a lonely apartment, but there are signs that some part of him still hopes for better things: he’s quit drinking, an impulse that Woody can’t even make sense of in theory. David views Woody as little more than a living reminder of a lot of bad memories, but after he’s picked the old man up while shuffling along the side of the road a few times, he decides to humor him and drive him to Lincoln. It’s the only way to exorcise Woody’s fantasy; it might even be a chance for the son to know something he doesn’t know about his father, or at least, give the old man an excuse to be grateful. Anyway, it’s a change. Once the movie leaves Billings, its defining images are the cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white shots of multiple lanes of highway stretching out across the Midwestern scenery, blights on the landscape connecting nothing to nothing.

Nebraska was written by Bob Nelson. It’s the first of Payne’s films that he hasn’t had a writing credit on (and the only one since his 1996 debut, Citizen Ruth, that wasn’t adapted from a novel). Payne isn’t exactly a major visual stylist, but Nebraska is still identifiably his work, especially in the moments that have been giving some people problems with him from the start: the lingering shots of David’s fat, giggle-idiot cousins (one of whom is unsettlingly smug about having just beaten a charge of sexual assault), and Woody’s relatives sitting around together, trading cliché’s. When Payne doesn’t hit it right on the nose, his satire can look like condescension. This was especially evident in his 2002 About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as a retired Nebraska insurance salesman surrounded by grotesques and weirdoes. The big problem with About Schmidt—what really set it apart from Payne’s other films—was that it had no center, or at least, that it had a self-congratulatory star turn in place of a character. Nicholson was probably trying as hard as knows how to not be “Jack Nicholson,” but he couldn’t pull it off. (The only time in the last couple of decades when he’s seemed able to pull it off has been when he’s been directed by Sean Penn; maybe he doesn’t trust his ability to con a colleague the way his 'Great Acting' cons, say, James L. Brooks.)

director Alexander Payne
Nebraska almost feels like a rebuke to About Schmidt. Or maybe it feels as if Payne allowed Bruce Dern, a lifelong colleague and rival of Nicholson’s, to deliver a rebuke to the master. (Nicholson directed Dern in what used to be his best performance, as the basketball coach in the 1971 Drive, He Said, and Dern even played the Nicholson part—the shifty, sexually charismatic fast talker—when they acted together in Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens.) It’s a challenging role for an actor who has always taken evident pleasure in seeming on top of things and who enjoys the sound of his own voice. Woody is uncommunicative, sunk deep inside himself. When he does talk, he often does a semi-senile variation on a favorite longtime Dern trick, delivering an insane response to a ridiculous or straightforward question, with a “No duh!” inflection. (In Michael Ritchie’s 1975 Smile, Dern talks to a friend who isn’t looking forward to the juvenile hazing ritual that their local drinking society insists upon. Maybe, says the friend, I just don’t see what’s so great about kissing a dead chicken on the ass. Dern looks at him as if he were nuts and says, “Maybe that’s because you’ve never tried it.” He sounds horrifyingly reasonable.)

The movie really clicks into place when a vicious “friend” of Woody’s, played by Stacy Keach, taunts him, in front of David, about an affair he’d had as a young married man. “He thought he was in love,” Keach snickers, and Dern visibly deflates inside—a surprise for the audience, and a shock for his son, who had thought that the old man was past feeling shame and hurt. If this is the moment when David realizes that the movie he’s in is about the weight of lost opportunity, as a member of a working class whose country seems to have moved on without them, the audience got its strongest clue a few scenes earlier, when David met the woman (Angela McKewan) who runs the local newspaper. She runs it pretty much single-handedly, she explains, since her husband died, but once upon a time, she and Woody were a hot item. She knew, though, that she couldn’t compete with Kate, as soon as she took an interest in him: “I wouldn’t let him round the bases.” (Woody has already offered his best explanation to the eternal question of the neglected child, why did you have me in the first place: “I always liked screwing, and your mother’s a Catholic. You do the math!”)

June Squibb in Nebraska

In the end, the remarkable, gentle touch Payne has with the minor characters who catch his attention, such as the newspaper editor, counts for much more than any detectable trace of snark in the scenes with the thuggish yokels. It’s just short scenes with a few lines exchanged, but you get a sense of a whole life opening up, and then one path it could have taken before shutting down. Not the least remarkable thing about it is the gentle, wounded charm Payne pulls out of Will Forte, a Saturday Night Live veteran who has never approached tolerability onscreen before.  Just as Dern never signals to the audience that he’s playing decrepit but is as sharp as he ever was, in case there are casting directors watching, neither Forte nor Bob Odenkirk ever let you catch them trying to be funny. The movie’s real sparkplug is June Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt. She died early in that movie; here, she gets to make up for lost time, insulting everyone and literally dancing on the grave of a former beau, with her skirts raised, so he can “see what you could have had if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time.” She’s Nebraska’s do-not-go-gently side, the one middle finger the working class keeps raised as it slides into its final resting place.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. "...counts for much more than any detectable trace of snark in the scenes with the thuggish yokels..."

    Yes, I agree that Payne modulates his usually potent satirical tone impressively here. This film startled me in its verisimulatude regarding people and places. I think that sometimes its hard to know what Payne is going for in his other films; not so here. Unlike About Schmidt and other films, it's not always clear that Payne has any respect for his characters. I'm OK with that while I understand it annoys many.

    I think it's OK to be snarky about some kinds of people. I know people and places like we see in Nebraska and I have nothing but respect for the hardships and disappointments that they shoulder. (In fact, I've been haunted by those thoughts since seeing Nebraska.) I think that Payne has been very gentle with them regarding their reticence and their taste. Bravo!

    I also, unfortunately, know quite a few people like those twins. I thought the portrayal was more acute than satirical. Sometimes portraying people accurately can look like an exaggeration :)