Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition
It’s tempting to analyze frequent writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach as if both their contributions to a film are dependent upon each other. Especially for someone like me who values the power of the written word, it’s easy to think that a good script might just direct itself.
“Nebraska,” a film directed but not written by Alexander Payne, offered a unique chance to observe his helming prowess independent of his writing. As it turns out, maybe I’m a bigger fan of Payne’s writing than I am of his directing. Payne’s critical stance towards his native Midwest almost seems to be working against the gentle tenderness of Bob Nelson’s script.
Payne’s previous scripts have all had a certain kind of bite to them. Perhaps that comes with the territory, though, as they mostly explore people going through crises – midlife, old age, the death of a spouse. “Nebraska” is remarkably simple, a tale of a grown son indulging his demented father in a road trip to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize.
For such a quaint tale, it’s refreshing to see a cast so free of pre-existing iconography assembled for “Nebraska.” Perennial character actor Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a patriarch of no particular distinction other than his unrecognized charity. He’s calculatedly remote, both out of learned habit and elderly retreat. Woody is often absent, but Dern is always present, making his character most alive in those dead moments. It’s fascinating to watch the way he slowly reveals what Woody has mostly kept silent for years to a son with whom he’s not particularly close.
The road trip is also an important learning experience for David Grant, played by Will Forte in what is undoubtedly the film’s most unexpected casting decision. As someone exposed to a revolving door of megastars every week on “Saturday Night Live,” Forte seems to have emerged unfazed and as equipped to play an average everyman as an amateur actor. He’s always relatable and present in the role, subduing any tendencies to play to broad emotions that might have been picked up in sketch comedy.
David hasn’t exactly found fulfillment in his career or life in general, and without much tethering him to home in North Dakota, he agrees to honor Woody’s foolhardy request. The journey allows David to reflect on the lack of connection he has felt to his father throughout his life while also gaining perspective on the Woody he never got to see. At the end of it all, he even summons the forgiveness to stand up for and even love the father that neglected him so much as a child.
Along the way, they encounter a wide variety of people each with their own take on Woody’s newfound riches. David is forced to be the voice of sanity to reason with this gaggle of figures from his father’s past, including many unruly relatives. To take on Woody’s family, though, it requires David’s fireball of a mother, June Squibb’s Kate. She can spit some acerbic wit, yet Kate always offers a warm helping of humanity every time she appears on screen. Squibb marvelously realizes the heart that beats beneath her often crotchety and even downright cruel comments.
Aside from Woody, David, and Kate, everyone else in “Nebraska” seems remarkably undefined. There’s some characterization given to David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and enough selfishness to make Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) a suitable antagonist for the piece. But the rest of the bodies occupying the frame seem to be rather homogenous, salt of the earth midwesterners. At times, it feels as if Payne is determined to replace the “Minnesota nice” of the Coen Brothers with his own “Nebraska simple.”
Nelson’s script grants a kind of grace and respectability to the provincial lives of Nebraska folk. Payne, on the other hand, seems intent on communicating their indistinguishability as well as their inability to connect with each other because they are too busy drinking beer, watching the television, and slouching on couches.
Perhaps his visual language would have found better expression with a script of his own creation that feels a little more censorious. Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography echoes a persistent old-time simpleness that he laments. But these images are not strong enough to counter the overall compassion and quaintness of the story “Nebraska” weaves, leaving us with the sensation that we’ve watched the masterful Payne playing in minor key. B /