Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Hope I die before I get old, but if I don't, kill me
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
With Bruce Dern (Woody Grant), Will Forte (David Grant), Bob Odenkirk (Ross Grant), June Squibb (Kate Grant), and Stacy Keach (Ed Pegram)
Spoiler alert: mild
Nebraska takes an apocalyptic tone with its material, a perception furthered by its use of gorgeous black and white photography featuring the breathtaking beauty of the Great Plains farmscape, on one hand, and the rednecked grit of Shit Towne, USA, on the other. This is wholly appropriate, inasmuch as, pretty explicitly, almost all of the events to take place in the movie amount to little more than something to do while its main character waits to die. I have filed this movie under "comedy."
Which is accurate, because it is a funny movie. How much you, personally, will laugh with, or at, Nebraska will depend. It will depend upon how much you enjoy old ladies saying nasty things, and upon your tolerance for believing that anyone still alive in 2013, no matter how impaired, has the capacity to believe that when they receive a Publisher's Clearinghouse-style direct mailing that says they may have already won one million dollars, they have actually already won one million dollars.
I don't much care for the former and I had my patience severely tested on the latter, but I still liked Nebraska a fair amount, although less than I would have if 50% of Will Forte's dialogue, and close to 90% of his dialogue with June Squibb, our rapping granny for today, did not consist of the line "Jesus, Mom!" as if we were meant to assume this was the first time this thirty-five year old man has met the woman who raised him.
And yes, I'd also have liked it more if basically the same story unfolded, without the daffy premise.
Woody Grant, alcoholic, gets his magazine sweepstakes letter and misconstrues it as legal title to a million dollars; unwilling to trust the postal service with the equivalent of million dollars in cash, he sets off to redeem his prize, on foot, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska.
After his son, David, picks him up from the police station, he takes Woody home, where both get an earful from the functionally-old wife and mother, Kate; brother Ross stops in check on his dad and make snide comments. In the end, despite Kate's, Ross's, and even his own strenuous objections that 1)the prize money isn't real and 2)this is ridiculous, David agrees to take his dad to Lincoln. But the road to Lincoln runs through Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's hometown. Hijinks of the depressing but admittedly often hilarious kind ensue as we meet Woody's family and friends, and, little by little, come to know that at some point in the past Woody was once a human being.
Bruce Dern proves that while he's, regrettably, getting pretty old himself, his acting faculties are still intact enough to create this caricature of an aged man with dementia. It's slight enough that you might not initially notice, yet obvious enough that it makes it okay to laugh at what the ravages of time have done to this poor bastard, and finally balanced enough that when Woody's acknowledgment of what is to come rises to the surface—so briefly, but unmistakably—it hits you like it would have if he were a completely real character and not one-quarter cartoon.
The humor in Nebraska ain't subtle, but it's cruel. If it does sometimes go too far—and it does, at times come off as too silly to be wholly bought—it's because once you get old in the American Steppe, you apparently start speaking the truth about what underlies human relationships. Such truths include the fact that sometimes you have kids because you had sex, not because you wanted kids, and the notion, not expressed in such stark terms but certainly shown through action, that cash rules everything around everybody, including white Midwesterners whose closest exposure to the ghetto is singing karaoke to the Elvis Presley song. Even if the cash is obviously the fantasy of a mentally decrepit old man.
Well—if I'm being honest, the best moment in the film, and the best joke, isn't really about any of that, in fact has nothing to do with any of that, and actually takes place in South Dakota.
But if Nebraska is (mostly) an excoriation of the species, it's also a story about how, at the last possible moment, two guys can find themselves as a father and son for the first time in their lives, and it may just move you.
...Again, depending upon how jarring you find an old lady hiking up her skirt in a graveyard and showing the tombstone of a long-dead failed suitor what he was missing; and really, you should find that at least a little jarring.
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