Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nebraska (2013) – Review

Review: Nebraska is a funny and heartfelt drama about a father and son. The film follows Woody Grant, an elderly man who has lost a bit of his mental capabilities, and his son David, who has just come out of a long-term relationship and is feeling vulnerable. Woody believes that he has won a million dollars and needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska (900 some odd miles away from his home in Billings, Montana) to collect. It is a fantasy, but Woody truly believes it with every fiber of his being. David decides to give his father at least a few more days of happiness – of something to live for – and indulges his fantasy by taking him on a road trip to Lincoln, first stopping by his hometown of Hawthorne.

Director Alexander Payne has always been really good at finding humor in characters that feel overtly sad, and this is again true in Nebraska. Woody is seemingly content with his life and probably does not think about much anyway when he is first introduced. He is just confused by a sweepstakes letter he has received and thinks he has won the money. It is David who really comes across as the sadder of the two characters initially. David has a dead-end job, lives in a small apartment, and has just lost a girl who he was probably only with for companionship. He feels alone. David also has grudge against his father, something that has lingered since he was very young. He thinks his father is just a lousy drunk who lets people walk all over him. In a way, David is afraid of becoming like his father, which is why he resents him – but at the same time, David has a good heart and decides to help his father to make him happy, and probably to have some companionship when things seem a little bleak.

Payne takes these rather sad sack characters and presents them to the audience in both a very relatable and humorous manner. Despite Woody and David’s seeming ineptitude, the viewer can see themselves in the characters as well – as fears like loneliness and one’s legacy are universal. And yet, the viewer can just as easily laugh at these characters too. Payne presents them (and really the whole world of the film) as people that time has forgotten in a sense. This becomes especially true once Woody and David get to Hawthorne, a small rundown farming town. These characters just feel so foreign pitted against our modern world of hustle, bustle, and technology driven everything. They come off amusing because they feel so out of place (even though they fit perfectly in their surroundings).

For the first two acts of Nebraska, the film feels like a character piece, as David comes to better understand his father by seeing where he grew up and the people he was amongst. In a way it is revelatory for him. He had always sort of viewed his father as a drunken loser, but this road trip has revealed him as so much more – a man who was deeply affected by his service in the Korean War and a man who is generous to a fault. Payne uses all this to really set up a fantastic third act in which everything the film has been building towards pays-off in a very satisfying manner. Before the film finds its charm and warmth in the third act, one might even call it a satire (if they did not know Payne’s dramatic style), especially when juxtaposed to the modern social experience. But the film captures such sincerity in the third act that it is hard not to smile.

However, as good as the third act is, and as funny and touching as the film gets, a lot of the good is ultimately underwhelming because Payne does not structure the narrative efficiently enough when a story such as this needed to be much tighter. The pacing is very slow, especially in the first half of the film. Payne does do a good job with the characters, but to some extent loses the audience due to the narrative being overly long – with really the comedy being the film’s saving grace in keeping the audience engaged until the narrative really gets going in the second half.

Nebraska is dramatically compelling, as David’s relationship with his father is very relatable. Plus, Payne employs a sweet and comical tone to what otherwise might have been a depressing narrative. These elements make the film one of the better small dramedies of the year, but again the poor pacing and overall narrative structure hold it back a lot.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alexander Payne has established himself among the elite filmmakers in America’s independent cinema. He is the master of the dramedy with films like Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and now Nebraska. After maybe the biggest hit of his career with The Descendants, it seemed like a brave choice to make such a small drama, in black & white no less, but Nebraska feels very much aligned with his overall persona as a filmmaker and seems to elevate above its small(er) budget and relatively lesser known (and completely unknown) actors.

Composer Mark Orton delivers a score that seems to perfectly fit the laidback and somewhat goofy time-forgotten tone of the film. It works really well. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael provides photography that with the work of production designer J. Dennis Washington grounds the film very much in reality. Nebraska visually feels a bit like a documentary, as if the film crew just accompanied these people on their journey. Having lived in Montana for a year, the great open spaces that Papamichael captures really speaks to the feel of the region, which becomes in its own way a character in the film as well. The locations set the mood, and this is thanks to the good work from Papamichael and Washington.

Payne directs his actors to give very naturalistic performances, again playing into the film feeling a bit like a documentary. Stacy Keach shows up as Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram and Keach plays right into his strength as an actor: being a bully. Bob Odenkirk is good in a small role as David’s more successful brother Ross. What Odenkirk does so well despite limited screen time is give his character an undercurrent of sadness, like not everything is as good as it might appear from the outside. June Squibb plays Woody’s spirited wife and almost steals the film. She is fantastically lively and commands the screen. Will Forte gives the best performance of his career so far as David (a role most seem to classify as supporting, but it feels much more like the film’s lead). Like many comedians before him, he does a good job with the comedy masking underlying sadness. But what really stands out about Forte’s performance is his inner strength and warmth. Bruce Dern is great as Woody, completely becoming the character. He is so good at balancing a character who is just sort of lost (in life and mentally) and a man who is looking for his life to mean something as he faces death. He is touching and very funny.

Summary & score: Nebraska is a good little dramedy that succeeds on the strength of its father-son relationship narrative. 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment