Tuesday, October 15, 2013

THE STRAIGHT STORY: NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne's Nebraska @ NYFF)

I don't think I’ve ever anticipated an Alexander Payne movie in my life. His stuff just really isn't my thing. He makes these slightly edgy, yet quirky, R-rated dramedies for a generation of people I don't really relate too. He's got that Coen brothers pass where he can kinda make any movie he wants and film society critics, young baby boomers & old gen x-ers will blindly praise it. Maybe when I'm in my mid-40's I'll get it, but for now - meh. The ultimate reason that I decided to see Nebraska is because I didn’t want to only see two movies at this years' New York Film Festival (Bastards & Only Lovers Left Alive) having missed a bunch of movies due to not being able to make Toronto this year.

Election and Laura Dern's performance in Citizen Ruth are the only things that Payne is associated with that I’ve ever really liked. I thought Sideways was overrated long before it was cool to think that, The Descendents was "ok" and I haven't seen About Schmidt since it first came out over a decade ago. But I’ve always had respect for Alexander Payne as a person thanks to his participation in the Z Channel documentary. It was in that film that I came to learn he was a true cinephile. It’s becoming rare these days to find cinephile filmmakers who aren't annoying & obnoxious like Quentin Tarantino or even Nicolas Winding Refn (someone I actually have love for). Its beyond frustrating to be at a Q&A with a director who clearly knows very little about the artform that they participate in. I understand how busy things must get once you become a filmmaker, leaving you with little personal time to catch up on movies, but didn't you at least watch a lot of movies BEFORE you started started making them? There's still a rare breed of filmmaker out there that knows more about film than Quentin Tarantino & Nicolas Winding Refn combined but you'd never know that (unless you read about them, actually listen to a director's commentary on a DVD or watch a film like Z Channel) because people like Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and a few others don’t spend all their time making movie collages (as opposed to actual movies) to show off how much cinema knowledge they posses.

What sparked my interest in Nebraska was hearing about Bruce Dern's award winning performance at this years' Cannes film festival. Cannes always shows love to underrated performances, usually given by American actors, that don’t ever get recognition from the more popular award shows like the Oscars or Golden Globes. There's been a fairly eclectic mix of American award winners at Cannes over the years - Forest Whitaker (Bird), James Spader (Sex, Lies & Videotape), Samuel L. Jackson (Jungle Fever), Sean Penn (She's So Lovely), Benecio Del Toro (Che), Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials Of Melqiadas Estrada), etc. Now that I've actually seen Nebraska I can safely say that Dern deserves all the praise he gets along with co-star; June Squibb (she honestly steals the show in my opinion).
After doing a little more research I came to find out that not only is Payne's latest film shot beautifully in black & white but it also co-stars the always underrated Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk AND Will Forte, who is probably the funniest human being on the planet right now and he just so happened to have given one of the most slept-on comedic performances of 2012 in Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (just a heads up - Forte's character in Nebraska is a fairly straight forward/straight-laced guy which is pretty out of character for him). Actually, I was subconsciously reminded of Tim & Eric through the coarse of the film as both Odenkirk & Forte are regulars on that show.
I'm also a sucker for a good road movie. And a black & white road movie at that?! Forget about it. Has there ever actually been a "bad" modern black & white road movie? Nebraska falls in line with other great, eerie, modern road trip films like; Stranger Than Paradise, Kings Of The Road, Juha, Paper Moon, Alice In The Cities, etc.

Clockwise from Top Left: Alice In The Cities (Wim Wenders), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdonavich), Kings Of The Road (Wenders), Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)

Nebraska has a lot of good stuff going for it - road movie, good cast, a subconscious connection to one of my all-time favorite tv shows, beautiful cinematography, etc. The end result is a solid film that lies somewhere in the upper tier of Payne's filmography - In my opinion it's better than Sideways & The Descendents but not as good as Election or Citizen Ruth (remember, I think Payne's recent work is a bit overrated so take my ranking of Nebraska with a grain of salt). The performances are great and the vibe is comically eerie. Some scenes in the film felt like what America would look like from Bela Tarr's perspective, shot with the same camera that was used to make Werkmeister Harmonies.

It's evident that Payne set out to make a smaller, more personal film this time around by casting Bruce Dern in a film set in Nebraska (Payne's home state) which couldn't be any more opposite than his previous film which was set in Hawaii, starring George Clooney. So no matter where this may "rank", Nebraska is probably his most personal & mature work to date...

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern stars as "Woody Grant" - a grumpy retired old man, probably in the very early stages of dementia or alzheimer's, who suddenly receives a letter in the mail telling him he's won a million dollars (clearly this is a scam but Woody is too old to understand). In order to claim this so-called prize money he has to travel to the headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska from his home in Montana. After multiple attempts to get there on his own (like Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, Woody can't drive), his son; "David" (Will Forte) offers to drive him. Part of me questioned David's motivation at first - If your aging father, whose clearly not all there, suddenly told you he won a million dollars in the mail would you seriously go along with it to the extent that David did by actually driving him from Montana to Nebraska just to entertain him? Perhaps David wanted to spend time with his father. Pretty early on in the film we know there's no damn prize money but we're just so happy to see our lonely old anti-hero, who might remind us all of a dad, grandfather or uncle, motivated to not just get up off the couch but to take a trip somewhere before its too late.

Or maybe like Michael Haneke did with the videotapes in Cache, perhaps its Alexander Payne himself who sent Woody the letter telling him he won a million dollars.

Once word gets out that Woody is a "millionaire", old friends & family members suddenly come out of the woodworks to reclaim money that they supposedly loaned him years ago.

Clockwise from top left: Paris Texas (Wenders), The Straight Story (David Lynch), Broken Flowers (Jarmusch), About Schmidt (Payne)

Nebraska has tons of humor but there's also quite a few moments of deep reflection and plenty of touching moments. This almost felt like Payne was taking another stab at making About Schmidt with a few variations. Both movies deal with retirement, loneliness, reflecting back on life in old age, etc. And like Nebraska, About Schmidt is also a road movie about a slightly unpleasant, although likable, anti-hero. 
What I liked most about Nebraska is that this was the first time Alexander Payne REALLY let his inner-movie nerd out by referencing and paying homage to so many movies (on purpose and by accident) while still making a film that's all his own. Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska carried the spirit of quite a few past performances given by aging, iconic American actors on a road trip through Anywhere USA: Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Harry Dean Stanton (Paris Texas), Bill Murray (Broken Flowers) and of course Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story). And likewise, June Squibb's performance in the film is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's aunt in Stranger Than Paradise or the grandmother in Raising Victor Vargas.

A movie snob like myself always seems to be drawn to films outside of America but Nebraska fills me with a little bit of pride (mixed with a little bit of embarrassment & cynicism) about my homeland. Nebraska has it's share of cliches & predictable moments but it was still an enjoyable film...


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