Thursday, March 27, 2014

Short Take: Nebraska

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Nebraska, director Alexander Payne’s sixth feature, is an absorbing if uneasy mix of family pathos, misanthropic humor, and mannered, faux-poetic cinematic style. Bruce Dern stars as a senile, alcoholic retiree who lives in Montana with his beleaguered wife (June Squibb). He’s convinced he’s won a magazine clearinghouse sweepstakes, and he refuses to listen to anyone who tells him otherwise. Come hell or high water, he’s determined to make the trip to the clearinghouse’s offices in Nebraska to collect the million-dollar prize. After his efforts to walk the 800-mile distance have been thwarted a few times, the younger of his two sons (Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte) decides to put the matter to rest and drive him. The two get waylaid in their old Nebraska hometown, where they’re joined by the wife and the elder son (Bob Odenkirk) for an impromptu reunion with family and old friends. At its center, the film is a parable about catering to a loved one’s illusions, and how it can be the most generous thing a person can do. However, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson surround the sentimental family drama with cruel, sneering humor that caricatures the hometown friends and relatives as a bunch of venal hicks. More discord comes from the pretentiousness of the black-and-white cinematography, deliberate pace, and desolate landscape visuals. The directorial style indicates a filmmaker far more concerned with being applauded for artistry than serving his material. But for all of Payne’s missteps, he makes the pathos of the father-son relationship work, and a couple of comedy scenes--the wife’s cemetery visit, and the sons’ botched effort to reclaim their father’s old air compressor--are brought off well. Payne also gets good work from the cast. June Squibb’s hilarious performance as the irascible, sharp-tongued wife is particularly impressive. Phedon Papamichael was the film’s director of photography. Mark Orton provided the musical score.