Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Finding the Real Family Fortune
The flat farmland of the Cornhusker State and its plain, ordinary people appear to be ripe for ridicule or mocking. I had that suspicion when I first heard about Nebraska and what I understood of the story. However, director Alexander Payne (who seems to have a love for portraying various states: Sideways' northern California, The Descendants' Hawaii, and now Nebraska) and screenwriter Bob Nelson creates a far more nuanced film, one where the characters are real, where we can completely believe that they exist. If I must confess to something, I saw many of my own relatives in the characters in Nebraska, and that familiarity with family types is just one part of what makes Nebraska such a wonderful, hilarious, and excellent picture.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes a mailing from a magazine subscription solicitor that he has won a million dollars. Nothing will dissuade him of this concept, and he is determined to collect his fortune in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has no problem going so far as to start walking from his home in Billings, Montana to do so. Found wandering the highway, the police finally get in touch with one of his sons, David (Will Forte). David tries to explain that this is just a way to get people to subscribe to magazines, but Woody I don't think either understands or accepts this explanation. The letter says clearly he won a million dollars, and he is going to get his million dollars.
Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) feels at a loss at what to do with her husband. David's older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local newscaster, both think Woody should be put somewhere, but despite their troubled relationship (Woody won't recognize his alcoholism or the damage it has done to the family), David still holds out. David, finally accepting that Woody will not be dissuaded, talks his father into having him drive to Lincoln to 'collect'. Kate and Ross are both horrified by this, but David and Woody go off.
Circumstances force them temporarily off the road but fortunately (or not), they are able to stay with one of Woody's brothers in Hawthorne, Nebraska for the weekend. Woody's brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his wife Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) are welcoming, but their sons, Bert and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) can't believe it took them two days to drive from Montana to Nebraska. Arrogant, boorish, and criminal, they are literally heavies to the somewhat senile Woody and generally kind David. With Woody in town it's decided there's going to be an impromptu reunion of all the Grant boys, and Kate and Ross will be coming down that weekend as well.
Woody now is able to see local big-shot and former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach), and despite David's warning about not mentioning the money, Woody can't help himself. He doesn't brag about being a new millionaire, but states it as fact. Naturally, the town and the Grant family is elated at this, for various reasons, some of which are particularly pernicious.
During that weekend, David finds out a great deal about both his parents from those who knew them when. His family similarly finds out a great deal about each other and on how their extended family and former community react to learning about his fortune as well as the erroneous nature of it. Kate settles things with all her in-laws, and after one harrowing night David, Ross, and Kate all leave the other Grants and Hawthorne to its own devices.
David and Woody continue on to Lincoln, where Woody goes to collect his prize. Told he his numbers are not the winning ones, he leaves with only a Prize Winner cap for his troubles. David, however, decides that his father has indeed 'won' what Woody was going to do with his winnings, arranging to get a new truck and air compressor (the only things Woody appeared to want, even if he really couldn't use either). In a quiet ride of triumph through Hawthorne, David allows Woody to drive slowly down a main road (and Woody tells his son to hide so he can be seen alone), where an old friend watches Woody in his new truck with joy, Ed watches with resentment after having mocked Woody when the truth is uncovered, and Woody's eccentric brother Albert, who likes to sit by the side of the road and watch people go by, simply waves goodbye to his brother as Woody and David go back to Billings.
Nebraska does not hold its characters to ridicule or mockery. Instead, it has a very sincere appreciation for them, despite their sometimes outrageous nature (seeing Kate lift up her dress and basically flash the grave of an old beau is shocking, hilarious, and oddly natural). Woody's blunt and sometimes dismissive behavior towards David is counterbalanced with David's conflicted view: he loves his father but also holds some anger for how he was growing up.
David in one scene wants Woody to admit he was an alcoholic. Nothing doing, with Woody still upset that David lost his beer as a child. David's confession that he wasn't drinking it (as Woody thought) but pouring it out to get Woody to stop drinking doesn't dissuade the old man. However, despite all this it is clear that David truly loves his father, understanding that in his senility the only thing Woody wanted was just a little dignity, and that despite the alcoholism Woody actually was a very good man, generous to a fault and almost ignorant of the avarice his family and friends were capable of.
In fact, all of Woody's immediate family loved him and each other. Kate can belittle her husband for his foolishness, but she is the first and loudest voice to stand up to all the Grants who come asking for 'payment' of loans decades past. She lets them know in no uncertain terms that she remembers all the things he's done for them, free of charge, and how they never thought to do the same. Further, she is blunt in what Martha would not want advertised: while Martha recognizes that Cole 'did some jail', she is defensive when Kate brings up that Cole isn't 'volunteering' in roadside cleanup, but is there because of a rape he was charged with. It isn't rape, Martha insists. It was sexual assault, a parsing of terms Kate has no patience with. Even Ross, who is more like his mother like David is like his father, shows his love by joining David in stealing back the air compressor Ed 'borrowed' thirty or forty years ago.
Pity the compressor belonged to the Westendorfs, who by both their parents admission were really nice people that had never done them harm.
This theft, which in other films might have been built up to a big moment, had me laughing uncontrollably, complete with Kate keeping the Westendorfs' attention as her sons hid in the barn. When they complained to their parents as to why they didn't stop them, she replies she didn't know they were going to do something like that, and Woody too was similarly puzzled why they would want to take the Westendorf's air compressor.
In short, Nebraska has a clear yet sympathetic eye to the complicated family dynamic, how people can love each other and yet be endlessly frustrated by what they do. As I stated, the characters reminded me so much of my own family (I would put myself as a David). Kate didn't make me think of my mother save for how she told off her greedy relations by reminding them of the many times they had taken advantage of her husband. In her gossipy nature and casual description of long-dead people Kate is so reminiscent of my aunts, and in their greed and general slothness you might have just as well put my own cousins.
Nebraska has top performances by every cast member. Dern has Woody not be a sweet and endearing figure (he can be curt and surly) but there is also something of the lost innocent, who truly believes whatever he is told. When Woody asks David why they aren't going to Lincoln on Sunday, David responds, "Today is Sunday. Lincoln's closed," which Woody accepts at face value. Dern gives simply a wonderful performance of a man who can tell it like he sees it when he is coherent. Squibb is equally brilliant as his Kate, who loves him and is frustrated by him I would say in the same breath. One moment when he is taken to the hospital, she calls an unconscious Woody an idiot, and the next kisses him tenderly on the forehead.
What I truly found amazing beyond words was Will Forte. Who would have thought MacGruber could be such a fantastic actor? David was the heart of Nebraska, his weariness and deep longing for a relationship with his father mixing with his frustration and protectiveness of a man who was not altogether good to him. If nobody says it, then I will...Will Forte was ROBBED of a Best Supporting Actor nomination (Jonah Hill, who do you sleep with to get these nods?) because Forte gives us a man who at heart is a good person burdened by his family.
I also loved Mark Orton's score and Phedon Papamichael's beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which gives Nebraska a classic look.
If I were to really find fault in anything regarding Nebraska, it is the short-shift David's relationship with his ex-girlfriend Noel is given. She has one scene and is never heard or seen from again. It was so brief it could have been cut without affecting the flow of the film.
However, that is really a minor point. Nebraska is a beautiful film: beautiful looking, beautifully acted, beautifully written. It's one of those films people say, "I laughed, I cried," and while I didn't do the latter, I did feel for Woody and David as they take the tradition of a road trip and made it not a journey into the heart of darkness, but a journey of a father and son finding a true commitment to each other and the insane world of family.