Monday, November 25, 2013

Nebraska is a Heartfelt Journey from Director Alexander Payne, about Father and Son, and Getting On in Age

Nebraska (4 1/2 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by: Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants)
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and June Squibb

Alexander Payne films a a distinct feeling to them, yet each film has its own personality.  His films take situations from everyday life, and blends the emotional, and hilarious moments within each.  Throughout each of films Payne has focused on things like the demise of marriage, the death of a spouse, or even a high school student body election, and made them mini journeys through the capsule in the lives of his characters.  Nebraska may be one of his most personal journeys to date.

As he slips into a quiet dementia Woody Grant (Dern) wanders down the road on a journey toward claiming his million dollar prize.  Woody received a letter in the mail from something similar to the Publishers Clearing House stating he won a million dollars.  To claim his prize Woody needs to head back to his home state of Nebraska, but his family is losing patience, and can't understand his drive to claim money which he has not won.  Woody's son David (Forte) begrudgingly agrees to take his dad on a trip to Lincoln, because like his father he has a dreamers mentality.  Woody and David begin a trip to Hawthorne, the place Woody was born to reconnect with family.

Payne's direction with this film, and Woody's story is some of the precise film making I have ever seen. Payne direction captures each wobbly sign, to the light flickering on the sign at the local tavern.  Payne worked with cinematographer Phedon Pappamichael, capturing some of the best black and white cinematography I have seen.  While I am almost always critical of modern black and white cinematography there is something haunting about the way Nebraska's landscape is captured.  Payne has worked with Pappamichael on two other films Sideways, and The Descendants.  This films cinematography proves these two are a dynamic duo with visuals.  

Payne is collaborating with screen writer Bob Nelson, for the first time, but the script feels like Payne's most personal film in years.  The story of father and sons, husband and wife, and family as everyone grows old, moves away, and reaches a different point in their life.  The film has some of the funniest moments in any of his films, the one liners about the town, and family gossip from wife and mother Kate Grant (Squibb), had me in stitches.  Kate is the funny one; she has put up with her husband for a long time, but she also loves and cares for him.  Squibb is brilliant in this role.

There should be no surprise that Payne has gotten strong performances from his ensemble.Payne hits every emotional mark with his actors, capturing the silent brilliance, letting the actor tell the story through actions rather than just through words.  Payne gets great work from his actors, and while Squibb is a true standout, Forte and Dern are a great duo.

Who knew Will Forte had this in him, after his years on Saturday Night Live?  As David learns more and more about his father you get to see some of the most beautiful moments about a son, finally getting to know, and understand his father's journey.  From the moment David enters the Hawthorne paper David gradually allows himself to escape into Woody's world living in the dream of his father becoming a millionaire.  Forte is a revelation in this film, and deserves more praise than he has received.

Bruce Dern tones himself down, and gives one hell of a performance.  My first interaction with him as an actor was in the television series Big Love.  Dern was obnoxious and overbearing, a trait with which he pigeon holed the same way Nicholson and DeNiro have been over the years.  Yet like with Nicholson in About Schmidt Payne creates, and lets Dern shine in one of the best performances of the year.  Woody is a cranky old man, but if you only see this, and nothing more you are missing the nuances to his performance.  Woody is a proud man, and you can see this even when he asks David to duck down while he is driving the truck.  Woody may not speak much, but Dern lets his face do all the talking, and as he loses himself you see the evolution of a man.

My only minor complaint with the film is that the film does feel long towards the end, and while the journey is beautiful there were moments in the film, which could have been cut.  In the end the film is a satisfying experience, which chronicles the journey of humanity as one man returns to a place he does not recognize.  The journey of the family within this film makes this one heartfelt, emotional, and funny journey that should not be missed.

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