Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Rich Man

"All I ever wanted was a new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)

Woody Grant lives in his modest home in Billings, Montana with his cantankerous wife June, yet you'd hardly call his time spent there a life - existence is more like it. He seems as though he has nothing to live for, but one day, he receives a document in the mail stating that he has been selected as the winner of one million dollars. This is one of those phony gimmicks by a clearing house to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody doesn't see that; all he knows is that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize and he'll get there, come hell or high water.

That's the plot device that sets Nebraska - a moving, endearing, whimsical and introspective film - in motion. Grant, in his mid-70s, knows he has to make this journey before his time runs out. It's just that his wife as well as his two sons David and Ross do everything they can to persuade him not to make the trip, as they know that there is no prize money for Woody. But given his stubbornness, he won't or can't see the truth, so Will finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln, if only to get him out of the house and stop driving his wife crazy.

As directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and written by Bob Nelson along with the unforgettable visuals provided by director of photography Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is a look at the heartland of our country, as well as the meaning of love among family members as well as lifelong friends. The one million dollars that is supposedly out there is the MacGuffin that makes people do some strange things. When David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, he makes plans to stop along the way in Hawthorne, Nebraska, a small town where Woody grew up. This section of the film represents the meat and bones of the story, as we get to know the more about father and son as well as the townspeople and how they react to Woody, as they learn of his supposed good fortune.

During this adventure, Woody sees a tavern and decides to sit down and have a beer; David sits with him, but orders a soda, telling his father he doesn't much care for alcohol. "Come on, have a beer with your old man," says Woody. "Be somebody." David does and it's during this scene that we start to learn of the true relationship of father and son. Is the father proud of the son? Is the son embarrassed by the father? In a film filled with many moments of lovely observations about human flaws, this scene is one the most revealing.

As Woody, Bruce Dern is mesmerizing; it's been a long time since he's been given such a meaty role (Coming Home, 1978) and he handles it with a great understanding of who this character is. With a head full of unruly hair going every which way and a frazzled white beard combined with his deliberate, slightly off kilt walk, he just looks and feels old. We wonder about the sanity of such a trip and at times, it seems this quest may just about kill him. But for Woody, it's about making things right, whether that means arriving in Lincoln to claim his prize or settling the score with an old crony, Ed Pegram (beautifully played by Stacy Keach). Dern is pitch perfect here; how nice to see this veteran actor finally get a chance to shine like never before.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) is a memorable character, one who is going a bit awry trying to deal with Woody's unpredictable behavior. She makes no bones about what she'd like to see happen and is as direct in her feelings about her husband's condition as she is about her former lovers (there is a hilarious scene in a cemetery where she talks to the deceased in very frank terms about her body). Squibb, who had a small role in Payne's About Schmidt, has the time of her life with this role, yet she never overplays her hand; her performance lends a nice mix of bitterness and warmth to this film.

As mentioned previously, Papamichael's photography is a major strength of this film. At time beautiful (landscape images of cattle grazing in vast fields, cars moving along on interstates) and at times bleak (the scene where Woody and Will search for Woody's teeth along some railroad tracks is particularly arresting, as are the visuals of the near-empty streets of Hawthorne), the black and white images are ideal for the wistful mood of Nebraska. I think it's great that Payne had the courage to make a black and white film; his trust in Papamichael to deliver the proper visual emotions have been greatly rewarded.

I've admired Alexander Payne's films for many years now, especially the way his stories have such a nice mix of sweet and sour (often more the latter than the former). Nebraska to me is his finest work, both visually and organically. His world view - in this case a few small towns and their unique inhabitants and their dreams - has never been so fully realized and I've never been quite as delighted with the final product as I was when Nebraska came to its lovely conclusion.

For all of us who realize that becoming rich is more than just having enough money in the bank, Nebraska is a must see.

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