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"Nebraska"

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Thoughts on the Best Picture nominee from Alexander Payne, director of "Sideways"

What's in a life? 

 

This question lies beneath the surface of "Nebraska," the latest release from Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways," "The Descendants"). 


The story is driven by Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something Montana man of few words. Woody is disconnected from those around him physically (he has bad hearing and is averse to eye contact) and metaphorically. Kate Grant (June Squibb) heaps scorn on her husband for his drinking problem and shortcomings as a father; Woody's oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local newscaster, sees him in an equally unflattering light. They both want to place him in a care facility. 


Woody intends to redeem a million dollar sweepstakes letter he received in the mail, though his immediate family members insist that it's a hoax. Like many of the characters in "Nebraska," Woody needs something to believe in. Scenes of Woody hobbling along a highway, a hospital sidewalk, railroad tracks--seemingly lost but utterly determined--recur throughout the movie.

 

The emotional heart of "Nebraska" is Woody's relationship with his younger son David, a

Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, rescued from obscurity

stereo salesman played by Will Forte. David, who is much more forgiving than his mother and brother, indulges Woody's wish to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to redeem his winnings.


An unexpected development on the road trip takes father and son to Woody's home town of Hawthorn, Nebraska. In Hawthorn, Woody reconnects with family and friends from deep in his past, including Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a former business partner and one of many people trying to angle in on Woody's apparent million-dollar windfall. Some of the characterizations feel like caricatures, narrative shortcuts used to depict static aspects of small town life, but there are amusing moments. Along the way, David learns things about his father that he never knew.  

 

Woody Grant revisits the house he grew up in

Where all of Payne's movies have elements of sadness leavened with humor, "Nebraska"--which lacks the dynamic comic presence of Matthew Broderick ("Election") or the Paul Giamatti-Thomas Haden Church duet in "Sideways"--leans more toward the former. The humdrum nature of the characters' lives is reflected in the black and white film stock and the winter setting:  snow blankets everything, and the trees are barren. The landscapes tend to be flat, the vistas far-reaching but gray and empty. When an act of kindness comes at the end, it's hard to shake the cumulative melancholy of the first 100 minutes. 

 

Even so, "Nebraska" has stayed with me all week, and like many of Alexander Payne's other movies, I suspect that it would yield riches on repeated viewings.

 

(*this article originally appeared on Dan Benbow's blog, "Truth and Beauty")                                   

 

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