BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Nebraska

nebraska

Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

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REVIEW: Nebraska

nebraska

Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire.  He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.

What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable.  David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time.   Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.

Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot.  Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse.  He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts.  Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.

nebraska-movie

Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together.  There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne.  After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.

Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far.  The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did.  Nebraska doesn’t.  It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it.  It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.

The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana.  She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves.  Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.

Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature.  Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments.  Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.

Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies.  He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending.  Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date.  In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable.  There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though.  It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.

Grade: B-

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Descendants

The Descendants
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit.  Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set.  Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man.  It’s one of his best performances.

In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in.  His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time.  Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.

Payne’s films are never as tragic as they could be, though, so that gravitas actually comes with laughs too.  In fact, Payne must join the ranks of directors like Todd Solondz for his ability to balance the humor/heartbreak tightrope so effortlessly.  We also learn about the family dynamic in his latest movie naturally, as Matt King (Clooney) travels around with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) to tell their close friends and family that his wife and their mother will soon be unplugged from life support

With scenes that range from the comic (Robert Forrester punching a boyfriend in the face) to the tragic (the countless tears when people hear the news) and of course that in between, The Descendants sadly comes and goes without leaving the impact that it could.  Matt learns his wife was cheating on him, and he decides to pack up his daughters and the blackeyed, dimwitted boyfriend (Nik Krause) and find the guy.

The entirety of the film takes place in Hawaii, so while technically most of it could count as a road movie, they are simply island hopping.  Mystery is left out of the narrative equation, mostly because inevitability is the point.  We’re told early on who this man is they’re looking for; we know that the mother will die.

Certainty is something that these characters, Matt in particular, has to grapple with.  He is already vastly wealthy, but frugle with his money.  There’s a big deal coming up where he must decide for his whole extended family whether or not to sell a prime 25 acre parcel of land that they have inherited and that he is the trustee of.  Like everything else, it’s just dropped in his lap for no reason other than that in Payne’s universe, things bad or good just simply happen.  The deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  Since he is already rich, though, the decision doesn’t really weigh on him until he realizes it’s his only source of power.

Matt is someone with little to no power in his family life.  He cannot stop his daughters from cussing or misbehaving at school, nor does he banish the annoying boyfriend Sid from the gathering when he has obviously overstayed his welcome.  That kind of passivity is familiar to those who’ve seen About Schmidt or Sideways.  Payne’s protagonists simmer until they boil over.  Here, though, he has fused seamlessly with the Hawaiian lifestyle.   Matt’s simmer never really reaches the level of the characters from those other two films.

The Descendants never achieves the level of mastery that Payne did in Sideways, either.  It is a decidedly mature and thoughtful work, to be sure, but it feels mandatorily emotional instead of genuinely so.  Matt King is the only character who should feel that way, and Payne should’ve taken more of an outsider’s perspective to achieve the kind of gravity the script demands.  Todd Solondz maintains a beautiful empathy while remaining merely a visitor in Life During Wartime, a film that overshadows this one in almost every way.

Payne is attempting to make us a traveler with the King family as their father tries to locate the man his wife was sleeping with not so he can beat him up, but so he can tell him to go visit the woman he was having sex with one last time.  The film’s best scene finds him and his oldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) descending upon the beach house that that lover (Matthew Lillard) and his family are staying at.  When the two of them have him alone they reveal the somber news, and Lillard’s face molds effortlessly between his tacked-on real estate smirk and a crumpled mess of sadness when his wife isn’t looking.

That is the kind of scene that Payne does so well, and there are not enough of them.  He seems to have bonded almost too well with the Hawaiian scenery.  Though its natural beauty is the only light in the often bleak encounters, the “Trouble in Paradise” motif feels beaten to death before the movie reaches the halfway point.

The Descendants picks up midway through, though.  When the script starts empathizing with his daughters instead of vilifying them, Clooney and the two young actresses (Woodley in particular) create a terrific family dynamic.  As he balances what to tell them and what not to tell them, we get a sense of a man who is also grappling with what he wants to admit to himself.  It’s that kind of tragic undercurrent that gives The Descendants its gravity even after it falls short.

Grade: C+

REVIEW: The Descendants

The Descendants
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit.  Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set.  Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man.  It’s one of his best performances.

In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in.  His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time.  Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.

Continue reading