September, 2013, Comedy


 Screenwriter Bob Nelson and director Alexander Payne have fashioned a meandering road trip that sends-up Mid-Western manners and mores in their examination of  Woody, (Bruce Dern) an aging drunk in Missoula Montana who insists he’s won a million dollar lottery sponsored by a magazine-distribution company in Lincoln Nebraska. Shot in black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska navigates the slippery slope between humor and bathos, making this the cinematic equivalent of a shaggy dog story.

Dern’s interpretation of an inebriated old coot has already earned him the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year and his performance is rivaled by that of character actress Jane Squibb who plays his long-suffering but  foul-mouthed wife Kate. If acting involves a performer’s body as well as his voice, Dern delivers a master’s class in the art; his ability to visually depict Woody’s painful difficulty in commanding his rapidly deteriorating body generates a level of sympathy  this taciturn, irascible old man he’d not otherwise merit.

 Because Woody’s lost his license and can no longer drive, his hang-dog son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him from Billings to Lincoln in order to put an end to Woody’s half-demented pipe dream. When David decides to briefly detour through Woody’s home town in Western Nebraska for a short family reunion, the audience meets family members and old high school chums who could have posed for Grant Wood’s iconic classic “American Gothic”.

 When Woody off-handedly mentions the purpose of his visit, his family and old friends assume he’s actually become a millionaire, triggering a plethora of demands to get in on his good fortune. After extracting his dad from the attempted depredations of kith and kin, father and son finally get to the offices of the corporate sponsor where both receive some unanticipated news that  ushers in a new level of inter-generational connection between them.

 Not much happens in this meandering tale, which is precisely the director’s intent. He simply allows his cast to match their facial expressions and mannerisms to Nelson’s hilarious and often astoundingly profane dialogue, forcing the audience to  determine whether he’s having fun with – or making fun of -these characters.

Payne’s whimsical tone, much displayed in his earlier work, (Election, Sideways, The Descendants)  refuses to take sides; Woody and those who people his world aren’t to be pitied, but neither are they to be forgiven for their bumbling lack of self-awareness. Both writer and director hail from small towns in the upper Midwest and it’s easy  to believe they carry scars from their respective childhood memories.

 Papamichael’s cameras make the prairies of eastern Montana, central South Dakota and western Nebraska appear vast and vaguely sinister, punctuated only by the store-front towns through which Woody and Dave pass. Each seems to be a three dimensional version of an Edward Hopper still life, instilling the notion that, evidence of occasional human life to the contrary, this is an empty part of the world.  The results compare favorably with that of legendary cameraman James Wong Howe who won an Oscar for his work on Hud, half a century ago.   

 The Verdict? An often-uproarious road trip, told with a satiric melancholy perfectly visualized through its paired-down examination of rural American life.

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