Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Nebraska, The Movie, Not The State (Which I Do Not Known Anything About, Although When Did That Ever Stop Me From Writing About Something Before?")

Let’s do this Jeopardy-style.

The answer is….

“The details.”


Pomerantz – Toronto Hebrew Day School!  (No wait, that’s College Bowl.) 

Your question to the answer “The details”, Mr. Pomerantz?

“What makes a movie special and well worth seeing?’”


And what movie are we talking about today, and, knowing you, it is almost certainly more than fifty years old?

The movie is Nebraska.  And it just came out. 

Apology accepted.

End of Jeopardy Sequence.

We saw Nebraska recently in one of those theaters where the only way you can buy tickets is on the Internet.  (To which they add a one-dollar “supplemental service charge” even though you are provided no alternative option for buying a ticket.)

We considered ourselves fortunate to get in.  The last time we submitted to this routine we showed up only to discover that our Internet submission had not been recorded and that we, therefore, did not, in fact, have tickets.  How exactly is that a “service”, when the ticket purchases are hit and miss because of either their error or ours?  It seems more like the lottery.

Anyway, we got in this time.  And for substantial portions of Nebraska, I was extremely happy we did. 

Nebraska is a sporadically wonderful movie.  (Which, by today’ standards , makes it a virtual classic.)

The – I am coming to believe – “Guiding Genius” behind Nebraska (written by Bob Nelson) is director Alexander Payne, whose impressive gifts I was introduced to as the director and co-writer (along with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor) of Election (1999), a hilarious allegory on driving ambition set during a (once again Nebraskan) High School Student Council election. 

Most recently (before Nebraska) Payne hit major pay dirt with The Descendants (2011), which garnered five Oscar nominations (including one for director Payne), and won an Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay”, Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash dividing the honors.   

Both Nebraska and The Descendants involve a “Big Score” story arc.  In The Descendants, it’s real – the sale of a huge tract of primo Hawaiian real estate they own can net an extended family an enormous fortune.

In Nebraska, the “Big Score” is a pathetic pipe dream.  As a result of receiving a transparent come-on mailer sent by a company promoting magazine subscriptions, Woody Grant (played convincingly by Bruce Dern), a flawed and borderline dementiaed Senior Citizen believes that he has actually won a million dollars, and needs only to go to the company’s Nebraska headquarters to collect it. 

After several failed efforts to get there on foot (Woody is no longer permitted to drive), the intermittently clear-headed old codger “guilts” his youngest son David (portrayed credibly if not memorably by Will Forte) into joining him on a road trip, chauffeuring him to his mistakenly expected Pot of Gold. 

Along the way, Nebraska family members and friends from the past come to believe that Woody is legitimately in line for a windfall, and they begin hounding him for a “taste” of they believe is rightfully due them.

The impeccably observed details enrich the storytelling, beginning with a vast and threatening overhead skyscape, which I know from personal experience predicts that “A bone-chilling blizzard is inexorably on its way.” 

In Nebraska, very actor and their Midwestern-looking face (with the exception of the overly stentorian Stacy Keach) seems to have been been painstakingly, almost lovingly, selected.  (Payne is originally from Nebraska and still spends considerable time there.) 

It’s the same thing with the buildings.  Mirroring the devastating reversals in the local economy, the still standing Nebraskan farmhouses reflect the appropriate proportion of peeling paint.

I liked Nebraska quite a bit, though I was no fan of what seems to me to be a tacked-on, insistently uplifting resolution.  But you know me.  I’m the guy who describes virtually all American movies as being about somebody who wants something and in the end they get it. 

In the world of the mandatorily triumphant ending, there is little love in the movie business for an alternative option in which somebody wants something and they don’t get it but instead, they get something that may be more valuable than what they had originally coveted.  It is my perhaps cynical view that the proposal of that potentially more emotionally satisfying trajectory would inevitably be responded to with a studio executive saying,

“I see what you’re going for.  Do it the other way.”

Although I have taken considerable space providing one, a review of Nebraska is not my primary intention here.  What triggered this blog post is a negative review by the respected New Yorker film critic David Denby, who appears to dislike to the movie because it lampoons helpless people – specifically the economically disadvantaged Nebraskans.   

Denby writes, in part:

We seem to have entered dim-bulb territory:  People are eager to believe that Woody has won a fortune and refuse to hear David tell them that the prize isn’t real.  They suddenly turn greedy – they want a piece of it.  {Unlike the targets in other Payne movies}… these people have no pretentions, no power.  What is there to make fun of?  

Denby’s argument is in the territory of, “You do not attack somebody when they’re down.”  Me, I am not entirely certain about that.

By nature or proclivity, Alexander Payne is a cultural satirist.  And the satirist’s job is to poke fun at deserving targets.  Wherever they find them.  Suffering indisputable hard times alone does not immunize a person against being an idiot.  When it comes to behavior, even the downtrodden have options.  And if you independently opt for “the low road”, and there’s a satirist around, up or down, you are unquestionably asking for trouble. 

I guess I am biasedly partial to satirists, an all too rare perspective in a culture that insists – sometimes frighteningly – on the patriotic myopia of “American Exceptionalism.”

I recommend Nebraska for its sharply delineated moments of less than “top of the line” behavior, and for its artfully highlighted specifics.  And also – worth the price of admission alone – for the Oscar-worthy performance by June Squibb as Woody’s honest-to-a-fault but ultimately steadfast and loving wife.  Watching this never-had-a-role-she-could-truly-sink-her teeth-into veteran blow the walls off is a delectable ice cream cone of an experience. 

However, if you’re a “The underdog – Right or Wrong” proponent, I would give the movie a pass.  That perspective will prevent you from enjoying Nebraska’s good parts. 

And who wants to pay ten bucks and counting to be offended and annoyed?

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I just want to say that I really enjoy your writing. I'd suggest you try to get a general interest column writing job somewhere, but I'm pretty sure you'd find the pay wasn't worth the added pressure, though you might find it satisfying in other ways. Anyway...

I have often said that bad writers can make the most interesting subjects boring and good writers can create interest where there was previously none. I learned this after I ordered a series of Time-Life books in the early eighties, a set covering a wide variety of subjects about which I thought I'd enjoy becoming more informed. Every single one was unbelievably boring.

On the other hand, though I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in seeing this movie or The Sunshine Boys, I thoroughly enjoyed reading what you had to say about them. Because I really like the way you write.