What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been
DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE/2013
JIM TUDOR: In his long and winding career, Bruce Dern has been on a lot of strange trips. Whether he was coming home to the ‘burbs, or silent running down in the valley, Dern has been perceived as a rebel rouser to the end. In his latest film, Nebraska, Dern is on a trip of a different kind. No longer altered by drugs and/or the vague oddities of late sixties/early seventies milieu, the visibly aged Dern is now playing his age, having long ago walked away from the Roger Corman motorcycle cheapies of his youth, right on through some time with Hitchcock, Joe Dante, and the TV show Big Love, all the way to Lincoln. At least, that’s where he’s headed. You see, there’s a pot of gold at the end of this road. Or so he thinks.
Filmmaker Alexander Payne (The Descendents, Sideways, About Schmidt), a Midwesterner at heart, has seen fit to get Woody Grant, Dern’s character, to his destination – even if he has to get MacGruber to do the job. That is to say, “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte has put on his traveling shoes to portray David, Woody’s water-treading son who, for whatever reason (Love? Escapism? Sheer exhaustion? All of the above?) agrees to transport his aging father from their Montana home to his far away former Nebraska home turf and beyond. Because, thanks to a letter Woody got in the mail, he’s convinced he’s won a million dollars. All he needs to do is subscribe to a few magazines. It’s a fool’s crusade, and David and the rest of the family know it. But Woody is a man who redefines the word “stubborn”. And so, away they go on their road trip, a long way to go and a long time to get there.
Nebraska looks like it was shot on location in a typically dreary Midwestern March. Skies are grey, dampness has been permeating everything for far too long, and those car exhaust-stained patches of snow here and there simply refuse to ever melt. The small town they stop in is populated with neglected buildings, junk filled homes (i.e., regular homes), and overweight, blank denizens (normal people). The whole thing is shot in black & white, allowing the actualized sense of “grey” to whelm over. It may not sound like much, but this combination of doomed road movie and father/son reconnection is Payne’s winning number. It may not have the dramatic heft of The Descendents, but it never aims for that. I thought Nebraska is refreshing in it’s modesty, full of human awkwardness and yes, a certain bleakness. But also consistently funny, and solidly enjoyable. I’d even go as far as to say it’s deceptively special.
What’d you think, Erik?
ERIK YATES: As I watched the contrasting grey colors permeate the screen, my first thought was Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album Nebraska. It too featured blue-collar characters dealing with a defining moment in their lives and was a dark, stripped down effort that has gone on to be regarded as one of Springsteen’s greatest works. In many ways, this is where Dern and Payne are operating. They have delivered a very stripped down, character-driven, film seeking to find one closing moment of greatness that will be remembered beyond a lifetime of living a gullible, drunken, regret-filled existence.
Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) is a great subtle choice to play Ross Grant, the older brother to Will Forte. Both come from a comedy background, which enables them to expose a soft, humorous nod, to the universal experience of humoring your loved ones when you really know better than they do. This humor enables the greater narrative to emerge, that many times the destination is far less important than the experience of the journey itself. And many times, in order to move forward, we must deal with the past.
JIM: Exactly. Payne seems to really understand that comedy can bring us to closer to certain truths about ourselves that otherwise might be too heavy. His films really walk that line between examining human behavior for all its amusing eccentricities and exposing it for all its rotten tendencies. And even though this one is lighter, it still hits those marks, sometimes simultaneously. A significant chunk of the movie is devoted to a sitcom-esque revenge gag sequence (stealing a generator from a barn), but Payne takes his time with it, and the whole escapade ultimately reveals more layers of the Grant family dynamic, and does indeed move the plot along, such as it is.
But Nebraska also does that other thing that all Payne movies do, which is to prop up the protagonist’s wife as a negative force. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson is married to a nagging shrew of a woman, and it’s a relief when she dies early on. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti is a divorced chump, painfully pining for his ex-wife who won’t have him back, the poor guy. In The Descendents, George Clooney discovers his newly comatose wife was having an affair with Matthew Lillard, who played Shaggy in the live action Scooby-Doo movie. (Ouch.) In Nebraska, Woody’s wife (well played by June Squibb) has nothing good to say about him. Ever. These unappealing, non-committal and unfaithful wives are really begin to pile up in Payne’s filmography. I’m not yelling misogyny just yet, but this is getting to be one directorial theme he might want to lay to rest.
That said, Squibb does manage to steal several scenes, as her overbearing nagginess toward her husband gives way to hilariously dealing with long separated friends and extended family members, all who waste no time coming at the “newly minted millionaire” Woody for a handout. (They’re all either dumb enough to believe it, or desperate enough to take the chance that it’s true.) Clearly, this is a small town where the recession’s yet to blow over.
I’m curious what you thought of this colorful (even in black & white!) stable of characters. But first I’ll sign off by saying that I saw Nebraska several weeks ago, and have seen many films since, but this one remains quite fresh in my memory. I find myself regarding it more and more fondly as the weeks go by. It’s obvious that Bruce Dern is worthy of awards attention, but his performance wouldn’t be everything it is if not for Will Forte’s thankless “straight man”, or June Squibb’s colorful counter balance to his internalized old man haze. The endnote might be bittersweet, but “sweet” is still the last word in that describer.
ERIK: June Squibb was great in this film. And while I do see the trend you mentioned in Payne’s films, there was a great moment where she insults Bruce Dern’s character while offering a kiss which seemed to cut through the nagging and bitter façade she had propped up throughout the movie and detailed a deeper relationship that was there still to be mined despite each character having settled into fixed roles years ago.
The characters of the town each offered their own layer and celebration of small town life, the long-memory of past events, and the petty grudges that are never fully forgotten. Payne’s depicts dysfunctional family life to a “T”, including hilarious scenes of how men of very few words catch up with one another after years of not seeing one another.
Nebraska at times, feels very long, and drawn out like the journey its on, but the performances, and the journey itself make this a film that will likely stick with you. And like Bruce Dern and his character’s redemptive arc, I think the payoff of this film is greater than any faults the film has. And despite the gray contrasts reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Winter of Discontent”, this film ultimately gives way to the sun shining on the journey home.