Friday, December 13, 2013

In Theaters: NEBRASKA (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Alexander Payne.  Written by Bob Nelson.  Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan.  (R, 114 mins)

Bruce Dern, with his odd mannerisms and twitchy presence, is the kind of actor who only could've become a leading man in the more adventurous 1970s, the last time when the idiosyncratic, the offbeat, and the challenging were widely accepted in mainstream cinema.  Dern was never cut out for the blockbuster films that took over in the 1980s.  Even in his A-list heyday, he was usually called upon to play creeps and psychos, and in a rare instance when he was the hero, as in Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978), you still couldn't put your complete confidence in him as a good guy.  Like most actors of his generation, Dern started out in TV in the early 1960s and moved into supporting roles (HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE and HANG 'EM HIGH among others) and eventually became a fixture in biker and hippie films of the late 1960s, such as THE WILD ANGELS, THE TRIP, PSYCH-OUT, THE CYCLE SAVAGES, and THE REBEL ROUSERS.  Dern's career really took off in the early 1970s, when he shot John Wayne in the back in 1972's THE COWBOYS, and with the same year's sci-fi cult classic SILENT RUNNING.  Dern also attracted much critical attention with a pair of collaborations with friend Jack Nicholson, who appeared with him in some of those earlier biker/hippie outings before his EASY RIDER breakthrough:  1971's DRIVE, HE SAID (directed by Nicholson) and 1972's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS.  Neither film was a commercial success, but they, along with the general momentum he had going, were enough to catapult him to stardom and leave the drive-in movies behind with prestige projects like 1974's THE GREAT GATSBY and 1978's COMING HOME, which earned a him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod (he lost to Christopher Walken in THE DEER HUNTER). To this day, Dern has never stopped working, but his time in the spotlight was short.  By 1981's TATTOO, his days as a headliner were essentially over and he moved into character and ensemble parts in projects of varying quality.  He could've just as easily turned up in supporting roles in films like 1990's AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and 1992's DIGGSTOWN, or in post-nuke junk like 1988's WORLD GONE WILD.  In recent years, he appeared on the HBO series BIG LOVE and assorted indie dramas and horror movies, usually typecast as a standard Dern-like weirdo.

Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA offers Dern the kind of late-career triumph desired by any 77-year-old actor who's been schlepping it for over 50 years and has been out of the spotlight for years. In a role first pitched to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and Robert Forster, Dern is Woody Grant, an 80-ish Billings, MT man who seems to drift in and out of coherence.  He's convinced he's won $1 million in one of those magazine sweepstakes mailers, and is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize.  He keeps trying to walk there--several states away--which frustrates the local cops and his blunt, tells-it-like-it-is wife Kate (June Squibb).  Out of frustration but thinking maybe a couple days of entertaining the fantasy might make his dad happy, Woody's son David (Will Forte) decides to take a few days off work to drive him to Lincoln.  On the way, they stop at Hawthrone, Nebraska, the small town where Woody grew up.  This leads to an impromptu family reunion with Woody's brothers, and even Kate and their oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) make the trip.  David, Ross, and Kate repeatedly try to convince Woody that he hasn't won anything, but he'll hear none of it.  Soon, his extended family and the rest of the town, including Woody's glad-handing old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) start swarming around Woody like vultures, not even masking their eagerness at getting a piece of the prize winnings.

Written by Bob Nelson, NEBRASKA has a lot in common with past Payne films like ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), SIDEWAYS (2004), and THE DESCENDANTS (2009) with its road trip and family squabbling.  Payne's decision to shoot NEBRASKA in black & white serves to llustrate the stark emptiness of the decrepit farm towns in this part of the country.  Many of the shots achieved by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael could almost function as still photographs.  Visually, it's beautiful and haunting, and the story is powerful yet simple in its execution.  David is a grown man stuck in a rut who has never really understood his father.  It's mentioned by a relative that the Grant boys (meaning Woody and his brothers) "don't talk much," and there's some dark humor to be found in the scenes of several of these old guys sitting around, silently watching a football game with nothing to say, until one (Rance Howard) pipes up, asking another "You still have that Chevrolet?" and the response being "Never had a Chevrolet...had a Buick back in 1979."  David's never really talked to his dad and during this trip, finds that there's a lot he doesn't know about him.  There's no big twist or huge revelation, but rather, it's a quiet and very perceptive little film about life, choices, regrets, unfulfilled dreams, and family dynamics that will resonate with many.

Of course, Dern is the show here, but it's almost fitting to his entire career that he's nearly upstaged by his supporting cast.  SNL vet Forte demonstrates some chops here that you would've never suspected if you just knew him as MACGRUBER and "The Falconer."  Keach and Odenkirk are both terrific, but it's 84-year-old Squibb who steals every scene she's in as Kate.  Opinionated and never suffering fools gladly (Ed: "Kate always was kind of a bitch"), Kate insists she can't put up with Woody anymore but she obviously still loves him.  Squibb finds a perfect balance between being a mouthy smart-ass and a loving matriarch, and does so without resorting to the old "senior being raunchy" standby.  Her cutting remarks toward departed family members during a cemetery visit ("There's your dad's sister Rose...she was a whore...don't get me wrong, I loved her dearly but my God, she was a slut!") and the bit where she goes off on Woody's greedy relatives are absolutely priceless.  Beautifully shot, intelligently-written, excellently-acted, thoughtful, and darkly hilarious, the low-key NEBRASKA is one of the 2013's best films and a potent reminder of what a gifted actor we have in Bruce Dern.  He shouldn't have had to wait this long for the role of his career.

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