REVIEW: “Nebraska”

NEB POSTER

In the comedy/drama “Nebraska” Bruce Dern plays an elderly man named Woody Grant from Billings, Montana. Woody receives a marketing flyer in the mail that convinces him he has won $1 million. All he needs to do to collect is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska and claim his prize. The problem is his two sons and his cantankerous wife all know it’s a scam. But Woody is determined that he is going to Lincoln even if he has to go on foot. To appease Woody, David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln and hopefully have some bonding time with the father he barely knew.

That’s the main story, but this is an Alexander Payne film so you know there is a lot more under the surface. Payne has always been interested in characters and this is a character-driven picture. “Nebraska” touches on a variety of real life subjects including alcoholism, greed, family dysfunction, and declining health of the elderly among others. And while there’s nothing inherently funny about these things, Payne and writer Bob Nelson don’t allow the movie to drown in its seriousness. In fact at times it’s a very funny film – that near perfect mix of comedy and drama.

NEB1

One of my favorite things about “Nebraska” is its authenticity. This could easily have been a conventional comedy featuring a stereotypical old codger. Instead it’s a very real story featuring real characters and set around a very real depiction of small-town America. With a few small exceptions, “Nebraska” never hits a false note. The majority of the time the characters feel just right and the Nebraska locations seem yanked out of real life.

I also love the choice to shoot the film in black-and-white. While it wasn’t popular with the studio, Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael saw it as an intricate part of their storytelling. I think it was a brilliant choice. It creates a very gloomy and bleak look that is perfectly in tune with much of Woody’s story. But it also works in the film’s portrayal of America’s dying small towns. There is a striking parallel between Woody and these rural locales that I found fascinating and the black-and-white made it all the more powerful. But at the same time there is a beauty to the look of this picture – a classic beauty that I don’t think color could provide.

That hints at another facet of the movie that really worked me. As someone born and raised in a place very similar to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, I was impressed with the film’s accuracy in capturing the essence of the small town. Payne, a Nebraska native, was able to show the sad side of what these places look like now while also painting a beautiful picture of how they once were.

NEB3

But once again it’s the characters that gives this film its life. Bruce Dern delivers one of the most earnest and committed performances of the year. Woody is a captivating character with more layers than you may think. He’s deeply flawed yet genuinely sympathetic. He can be unintentionally hilarious yet also sad and depressing. There is also a cloud of mystery that surrounds Woody. We get hints that he’s battling some form of dementia but it’s never clearly stated. Also, through the eyes of his wife and sons, we see Woody as a pretty bad husband, father, and man. Yet we learn new things about him from the people in his hometown that tell a slightly different story. There are numerous other nuances to this character that I loved.

The great film critic Leonard Maltin noted that “Payne has a Fellini-like eye for great faces”. I couldn’t have said it better. Much like a Coen brothers film, there are an assortment of memorable faces which add so much character and detail to the setting and the story itself. Everywhere you look there is one small character that feels a part of the fabric that makes up “Nebraska”.

NEB2

There are also an assortment of other great characters many of which are comic spark plugs. Perhaps the most talked about is June Squibb as Woody’s mean and degrading wife Kate. She undoubtedly has some of the movie’s funniest moments, but she also exposes one of the film’s only problems. Payne takes her snarky, belligerent, and sometimes foul attitude a bit too far. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed my butt off at some of her antics, but Payne overdoes it. Here’s an example. There’s a great scene where Kate, Woody, and David are visiting family grave sites at a small country cemetery. It’s a fantastic scene with the right mix of drama and humor. That is until the Kate character suddenly does a vulgar act clearly intended for a cheap laugh. It really hurts what could have been a brilliant scene.

While Payne does overplay his hand which hurts the movie a bit, I still found “Nebraska” to be one of the strongest films of the year. Not only is it a piercing examination of some very real issues, it’s also one of the funniest movies of 2013. And if Bruce Dern doesn’t get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his phenomenal work, it will be hard to take the category seriously. I really like “Nebraska” and I think it’s a better film than Payne’s beloved “The Descendants”. It is smart and fresh filmmaking that I really hope gets rewarded this awards season.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW : “The Descendants”

DESCENDENTS POSTER

“The Descendants” is a film from director Alexander Payne that first came out Oscar ripe. It’s a heavy story that deals with several conflicting emotions that flow from situations that are all too real for many people. It can be a difficult film to watch at times but it can also be quite moving. I can certainly understand the reason for the Oscar buzz it received mainly due to some incredible performances. But the movie both underplays and overplays some parts of the story which for me held it back a tad.

The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a husband and father of two who lives in Hawaii. He’s a rich man who gained his wealth by being a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine virgin land on the island of Kauai. But Matt tries to stay grounded. He works as a lawyer and uses that salary to support his family while employing his father’s perspective that you should always work for your money. Matt and his cousins have entertained offers for the land. Some want to sell it to a huge group from Chicago while others want to sell to a local Kauai developer. Matt has the final say and must weigh the wishes of his family with what’s best for the community. We learn most of this in the first few minutes of the movie through expository voice-overs. In many films this could be seen as a crutch but here it works surprisingly well and gives us key elements to the story which sets up what’s to come.

But within the first few minutes of the film it’s revealed that Matt’s wife has had a serious boating accident which leaves her comatose in an intensive care unit. Things look bleak and Matt struggles to bring together his two daughters. One is the impressionable 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the other is the bitter, irreverent 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). To make matters worse, Matt finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with a younger real estate agent. The story takes Matt on an emotional roller coaster as he tries to balance feelings of anger and betrayal with the reality of his wife’s current state. There is a unique complexity to the story and while there is a lot going on emotionally, Payne makes everything feel genuine and authentic.

DESCENDENTS1

While “The Descendants” does keep everything feeling reel, it does overplay a vital element to one of the film’s key relationships. Matt struggles and at times looks inept when it comes to parenting. This was never more clear than in his relationship with his older daughter Alex. Payne certainly portrays her as angry and rebellious but I felt he terribly overdid it. I was particularly turned off by her constant vulgarity and irreverence. Even as their relationship supposedly grows stronger, we see her or her airhead boyfriend speak to Matt as if they were drinking buddies. Woodley gives a brilliant performance but I never completely appreciated her character mainly due to some shoddy writing which kills the otherwise wonderful moments between the two. Her character never truly evolves as I had hoped.

And while it overplays that particular relationship I felt it underplayed the relationship between Matt and his wife. To be fair, we do get all the information we need and I had no trouble understanding the relationship between the two. But I couldn’t help but wish for more. We never see them together before the accident. All of the details of their marriage is brought out through conversations with neighbors and family. It’s a smart method of storytelling and I guess it worked well enough. But the nitpicker in me really would have liked to have seen more.

Descendents2

One of the most important lines in the movie occurs during a conversion Matt has with another character. Matt is told “Everything just happens”. This seems to be a main point that Payne tries to make with this film and we see it throughout the picture. But I couldn’t buy into that premise. I go back to Matt’s relationship with his daughter. Alex’s attitude and disrespect didn’t just happen. She is a product of her parents poor parenting. His wife’s affair didn’t just happen. Her poor decisions and lack of self-control led to the adultery. If “Everything just happens” is a main point as many have said, Payne never sold me on it.

As I mentioned, their are some fantastic performances here. Clooney is controlled and reserved and delivers one of his best performances. I’ve already mentioned the great work from Woodley but young Miller is also quite good. With the exception of the peculiarly cast Matthew Lillard, there are several brief but strong performances from actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. I also loved the use of Hawaii as a location. We do get small glimpses at its island beauty but for the most part Payne treats it as a real place where people live – a community with all the same trials and troubles as any other state. The mix of uniqueness and commonality was very effective.

There is a lot to like with “The Descendants”. It deals with some weighty subject matter in a real and thoughtful way. It shows glimpses of greatness even though it’s brought back down by some poor creative direction that strips one of the more intriguing characters of much of her likability. But I found myself caring about what happened to these people. It’s strong stuff and “The Descendants” handles it all well. It’s a film with a great concept and some great moments. Unfortunately a few speed bumps in the script keep it from being a truly great film.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS