Sunday, November 17, 2013

Nebraska is, well, home

It's only natural that someone living in Nebraska (Omaha) should review Alexander Payne's newest movie, Nebraska. Who knows the vibe better than a longtime resident?

Did I mention that Payne grew up in Omaha as well?

Nebraska is opened this weekend in "selected cities," including Omaha (at Film Streams). Judging from the reaction of the preview crowd, people are going to love this movie. (early reviews of both critics and audiences are very, very good.) The crowd applauded at the end and left the theater smiling and happy. Me too.

In the front seat, Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant and June Squibb as Kate Grant. Riding in the back are Bruce Dern as Woody and Will Forte as David.

Payne made the choice to shoot the film in black and white, which is entirely appropriate at setting the right mood for this melancholy, sometimes sad, and sometimes hilarious film. What is not "sometimes" is the quality of this film, its actors, and its uncanny ability to capture the feel of small town mid-America.

It stars Bruce Dern as an aging, delusional father – with some wild hair! – who is convinced he has won a $1 million sweepstakes. The movie takes us on the odyssey undertaken by Woody Grant (Dern) and his son David (SNL's Will Forte) from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. (Dern turns in the performance of his career and is a sure Oscar nominee. Forte delivers a nuanced performance for which I would gladly give him an Oscar  nod.)

After trying to convince his irascible father that he had not won anything, David decides to humor him and drive him to Nebraska – especially after Woody tries over and over to walk there, in the winter, by himself. They leave despite the adamant disapproval of Woody's very funny wife Kate (June Squibb) and son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Ross has just landed as a fill-in news anchor in Billings. David sells stereo systems. The parents' home is a very modest house in a lower middle class neighborhood. Life has not been financially kind to Woody, who used to live and work in the fictional small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

Woody is not only suffering from just a touch of dementia, but is an unrepentant alcoholic. He's painfully thin and has an empty stare and speaks in monosyllables. His last wish is to pick up his million dollars so he can buy a new pickup truck (despite no longer having a driver's license) and a new air compressor to replace the one he insists his onetime business partner Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach) stole from him when they owned a garage in Hawthorne. In fact, that's their first stop (after a hilarious quick visit to Mt. Rushmore).

Woody and David make the rounds of Woody's old haunts – mostly bars – including his former garage. They visit Woody's brother Uncle Ray (Rance Howard – yup, Ron's dad), where Aunt Martha (Mary Louis Wilson) flits around and her two slobby sons Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray) get to work baiting their cousin David. The two dissolve into hysterics every time they think that it took David more than a day to drive from Montana to Hawthorne. It is clear that they were way back in line when the Good Lord handed out smarts.

When Woody blabs that he has won a million dollars, some of the hometown crowd reveal their greed and try to collect past "debts" from him. This despite David's repeated explanations that Woody has not won anything. If anyone is the "villain" of this tale, it is Ed (Keach).

But this story is to be enjoyed for its small details, not necessarily the plot (for which writer Bob Nelson earns kudos). Rich performances by the principal cast are only part of the story. Actors in small roles, like that of former Omaha sportscaster Ray Stevens, also shine.

It is a talent of director Payne that he coaxes such subtle performances out of his actors. Although Woody and David exchange a minimum of words, we learn volumes about them. We come to view Woody with affection, despite his character flaws, especially as a father. While never articulated, David's love for his dad becomes evident, especially in the final heartwarming scenes.

This movie is more than the sum of its parts. You leave with a deeper understanding of people you might have dismissed. Your faith in mankind, while shaken, is ultimately renewed. And you get to see small town and rural Nebraska in amazing detail, like the blades of grass in an Andrew Wyeth painting.

A scene in a cemetery is at once sad and gloriously funny. A search for missing teeth is genius. In fact, you'll take many indelible memories with you after you see this gem. Unlike most releases, this one takes you on a journey during which you think, and feel, and laugh, and perhaps shed a tear, then leave satisfied, with that feeling of fullness you'll enjoy after Thanksgiving's dinner. So, I give thanks for this movie and to all who had a hand in it.

See you at the Oscars, Nebraska.

Three and a half stars!

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