by Steve Habrat
The last time audiences spent time with director Alexander Payne, it was in 2011’s The Descendants, the heart-wrenching, Hawaii-set dramedy about a family facing the sudden and devastating loss of a family member. With The Descendants, Payne bluntly pointed out that even those who live in a constant sunny paradise and sport floral print shirts are not immune to the harsh blows that life can unexpectedly dish out. Two years later, Payne returns with Nebraska, another frank dramedy with a heavy lean on location. Shot in nostalgic black and white and set in the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a simplistic road movie about an elderly father and his patient son on their way to collect a million dollars that may or may not be real. Along their journey they drop into the father’s hometown, a bare strip of farm country that is aging right along with the born-and-raised citizens that still make up its population. With veteran actor Bruce Dern at the helm and comedian Will Forte riding shotgun, this soft-spoken little movie is unexpectedly hilarious and overwhelming sweet. It’s a snapshot of a meat-and-potatoes family brought together through one man’s senile belief and staunch determination. It’s also about digging up the past, taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane and fondly looking back at year’s past.
Nebraska introduces us to Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), an elderly man who receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won a million dollars. Bound and determined to collect his winnings, Woody begins walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being stopped on the side of the road by a police officer, Woody’s son, David (played by Will Forte), picks him up from the police station where he discovers that the million dollars that Woody believes he has won is actually just a scam to sell magazines. After David realizes that Woody isn’t going to give up trying to collect his prize money, David decides to drive him to the sweepstakes center in Lincoln so that he will understand that it is all a scam. This plan outrages David’s mother, Kate (played by June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), who strongly believe that David shouldn’t encourage his father’s hopes. Ignoring the protests, the two set out on a road trip that leads them back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Upon their arrival, David and Woody begin reconnecting with old friends and family members, but after word gets out about Woody’s sudden new fortune, they all quickly have their hands out for money.
For a good chunk of Nebraska, the story lingers around the peeling buildings and desolate stretches of Hawthorne, a place that appears to be slowly fading from the map. It’s a town that seen some excitement back in the good old days, but now, the memories that haunt the abandoned farmhouses and boarded-up businesses are all that are left. Our characters chat about distant friendships that faded, family members that have passed on, or old American cars that have been hauled off to the junkyard, the chatter stopping when talk shifts into the present. Now the wrinkly inhabitants flock to the local buffet where the main form of entertainment is bad karaoke sung out in flat tones. The big news for the day is Woody’s return and the rumored million dollars that he has won, no one really knowing for sure if it’s true. Still, that doesn’t stop the citizens from beaming, gossiping, and proclaiming that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Hawthorne in quite some time. Even the Hawthorne newspaper jumps at the chance of doing a piece on old Woody. When David tries to explain that his father hasn’t really won anything to one eager newspaper employee, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they’ll just do a piece on the prodigal son’s triumphant return. This grasp on the past that the citizens of Hawthorne hold so dear is complimented by the black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who provides haunting shots of rusted out Americana, photographed with misty eyed nostalgia and twinkling memories known only to the character’s themselves.
And then we have veteran actor Bruce Dern, who gives an irritable and touching performance as prizewinner Woody Grant. With his shock of mad scientist hair and his drunken shuffle, Woody is a man on a mission, pausing only to have a few bottles of beer here and there. It’s clear that he is starting to slip mentally, although it’s implied that he has been a simple and gullible man his entire life. His delight over the winnings is truly lovable, even if we the audience know that there is no million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln. It also grows extremely difficult to watch old friends and family members try to milk money out of the poor man. It’s even worse because he has absolutely no idea they are trying to do it. While he is definitely overshadowed by Dern, former SNL comedian Will Forte does a fantastic job as David, Woody’s sweet and easy-going son who decides to let his father have his moment in the sun. June Squibb will have you doubled over in laughter as Kate, Woody’s gabbing wife who never misses an opportunity to rip him up one side and down the other. Always a woman to speak her mind, Squibb is a feisty blast, especially when she is visiting the graves of several friends and family members at a Hawthorne graveyard. Bob Odenkirk takes a minor role as Ross, David’s older brother who is fed up with Woody’s behavior and believes that they should be considering a home. Also on hand is Stacy Keach, another veteran actor who turns up as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old buddy who may not be as friendly as he first appears.
While Nebraska certainly has its fair share of leisurely moments, Payne turns up the hilarity level to high when he wants to. In the early scenes, the glimpses of Woody marching by the side of the road towards Lincoln will nab a chuckle and the constant verbal beatings that Woody is subjected to from Kate will have you doubled over. When the Grant’s make it to Hawthorne, the comedy really kicks into high gear as David mingles with his deadbeat cousins, Bart and Cole, and the rest of the family tries to awkwardly reconnect. In between the hearty laughs, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson delicately fill us in on Woody’s past. We learn he was a man of few words and that he had an ugly experience in the Korean War, but we learn that he would do everything he could for those he cared about, making him all the more lovable. Overall, Nebraska is a sparse and atmospheric story told with timeless care and comedic warmth. It puts up a defense with a dry sense of humor, but Payne isn’t afraid to reveal a vulnerable side, especially at the bittersweet climax. Though it may be shot in black and white, the film is given plenty of color from its quirky cast of characters, especially Dern’s career high turn as Woody. Nebraska is one of the finest films that 2013 has to offer.
by Steve Habrat
If the drama Blue Valentine could receive an R-rating partly for its graphic depiction of a marriage crumbling apart, then the R-rating in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants must have been for strong language and the graphic depiction of a midlife crisis. Payne really lays it on thick here but he softens the impact by mixing some comedy in with all the severe beatings that the Honolulu-based lawyer Matt King endures over the course of the film. The Descendants turns out to be a perfectly balanced dose of reality, never flinching to show how life can really deliver a blow but also going as far to show how we desperately try to keep our composure in front of others, even when it is the most difficult thing in the world to do. Payne, who also made About Schmidt and Sideways, makes the best film of his career (I’m still not sold on Sideways. I’m sorry.) and pushes George Clooney to give the performance of his career. And to think that I thought Clooney couldn’t get any better than his performance in Up in the Air!
The Descendants follows Matt King (Played by Clooney), a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who admits to being a second string parent and extremely tight with his money. He insists that even though he lives in paradise, he doesn’t sit around drinking Mai Tais all day. Matt also happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that inherits 25,000 acres of lush land on the island of Kaua’i. The trust is set to expire and Matt, along with a good majority of his cousins, is looking to sell the land. Just as Matt is finalizing the deal to sell, his wife Elizabeth is involved in a boating accident that leaves her comatose. This sticks Matt with raising his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Played by Amara Miller) and his troublemaking 17-year-old daughter Alex (Played by Shailene Woodley). Matt sticks by his wife’s bedside up until it is revealed to him that Elizabeth was cheating on him and on the verge of asking him for a divorce. After learning of the affair and his wife’s condition worsening, Matt sets off to find out who the man is that Elizabeth was seeing.
For those who teeter on extremely sensitive, The Descendants will be hell to watch. There are moments in the film where the emotional beatings are so severe that I wanted to crawl under my seat and not even watch them. We feel for Matt, whose heart hangs heavy and is caught in a situation no one should have to endure. He swings from grieving spouse to bitter and weary. Payne pads the blows by sprinkling some wonderfully staged comedic moments throughout the course of the film. His inclusion of Alex’s friend Sid (Played by Nick Krause) was a stroke of genius. Sid delivers some dazed stoner humor at just the right moment but even his character has cracks in his heart. Matt’s interactions with his berating father-in-law will have you egging Matt on to give him the verbal one-two. With all these cringe inducing exchanges and wrecking ball moments, Payne shows us just how cruel life can be.
Everything you’ve heard about the performances in The Descendants is true. Clooney, looking fatigued and weather worn, desperately clings to his sanity. His perilous attempts to keep his daughters in line warrant a pat on the back even if their defiance is justifiable. He simply hasn’t been the greatest father and he is well aware of it. He’s oblivious yet brave, keeping calm when more of his world crumbles down on him. He quietly deals, allowing his tears to flow in private and not in front of his daughters. Clooney also shows that he can be really, really funny. Watching him run through his neighborhood in boat shoes is classic as is his spying techniques. Shailene Woodley’s Alex is brimming with anger toward her cheating mother. She is the one that fills Matt in on what has been going on behind his back. Alex can be just as merciless as life is to Matt, but when her character comes around, she really aids Matt in coping. Matthew Lillard also shows up as Elizabeth’s squeeze Brian Speer, who has some secrets of his own when it comes to the affair. It’s nice to see Lillard tackling some serious roles and showing the world he is capable of more than just Scooby Doo. Beau Bridges also shows up in a nice cameo as one of Matt’s laid back and distantly understanding cousins.
The Descendants doesn’t waste any opportunity to show off the splendid landscape of Hawaii while setting it to comforting music. It’s an exotic film woven with vivid and authentic turmoil. I sometimes felt that I was tagging along with Matt in his quest to find closure and mend his wounds. The film delicately allows us to fall in love with the characters and in its final act, leaves the comedy behind and embraces full on dramatics. During the last act, Clooney turns his performance up to the highest level and unleashes a five-minute breakdown that will have you fighting back tears. Even though he is a fictional character, Payne, along with fellow screenplay writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, force us to admire his equanimity making it is all the more heartbreaking when he collapses. Payne also cracks the door to show us how we personally and privately deal with traumatic moments around us, which will really send needles through your heart. Draining on the emotions, The Descendants is ultimately about sticking together and having a shoulder to lean on in the worst of times.