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"NEBRASKA"
(2013) (Bruce Dern, Will Forte) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A man drives from Montana to Nebraska to prove to his partially senile father that he didn't win $1 million from a sweepstakes as he mistakenly believes.
PLOT:
David Grant (WILL FORTE) is an audio-visual salesman whose girlfriend has just moved out of their place. Not only must he contend with that, but he must also deal with his elderly and increasingly senile father, Woody (BRUCE DERN), whose actions are driving his wife, Kate (JUNE SQUIBB), to her wits' end. She's starting to believe he needs to be put into a home, a sentiment shared by her other son, Ross (BOB ODENKIRK), especially after Woody believes he's won $1 million due to receiving but misunderstanding a sweepstakes promo letter sent to him.

After Woody attempts several times to walk from his Billings, Montana home to Nebraska to claim his prize, David decides to drive his father instead, figuring that will dispel the belief of him now being a millionaire as well as allow the two men to get to know each other. Along the way, they end up stopping in Hawthorne, the town where Woody and Kate grew up and where much of his family still lives. That includes his brother, Ray (RANCE HOWARD), his wife, Martha (MARY LOUISE WILSON), and their two redneck sons, Bart (TIM DRISCOLL) and Cole (DEVIN RATRAY).

With Kate and Ross eventually joining them for a family reunion, word spreads through town that Woody is a millionaire. That news elicits the interest of most everyone, but especially Woody's former business partner, Ed Pegram (STACY KEACH), who believes he deserves a cut of the action. As that unfolds, David ends up learning things about his parents that shine a new light on them and him.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's funny and perhaps even troubling when I really ponder what sort of causes or symptoms it might point to, but when I think about my memories of spending time with my grandparents when I was a child in the 1960 and '70s, my memories of that lack any vivid color. I can't say for certain that they're completely black and white, but if any colors are rattling around inside my noggin, they're clearly muted and certainly far from vibrantly painted.

Maybe it's because they and their farm houses and lifestyles seemed old to me at the time when I was a kid living in the "big city" (okay, the suburbs of the "metropolis" that was Richmond, VA) and thus I equated them to a bygone era of old movies I had seen. It is somewhat amazing to think that in terms of movies and how they appear on the screen, we're now about half as far from the period where black and white films ceded over their dominance to color flicks as it was from the advent of feature films up to that transition point.

Granted, many younger moviegoers have little to no exposure to films of that earlier era, whereas viewers of a certain age, such as mine, clearly remember them (along with black and white TV). Even so, it's still somewhat surprising to come across a new feature length studio film set in contemporary times that's been filmed in black and white.

Whereas that look obviously fit in with the Oscar-winning "The Artist" a few years back (due to being set in the late '20s and early '30s), its use in "Nebraska," director Alexander Payne's follow-up film to his artistically and commercially successful "The Descendents" comes off as a less likely and maybe even risky gambit. That is, at least commercially, although stylistically it's a near perfect fit for the tone and themes of this tale. And in terms of making a connection with yours truly, that black and white look showcasing the storyline of life away from the city, visiting older relatives and so on really hit home for me.

For Payne -- who works for the first time from a script not written by him (it was penned by Bob Nelson making his feature film debut) -- this work is a continuation of a theme featuring characters on a road trip who come to learn a few things about themselves and others in the process. In "About Schmidt," the recently widowed protagonist set out to attend his estranged daughter's wedding. "Sideways" featured two friends on a trip through California's wine country, while "The Descendants" featured a father taking his two kids on a trip to Hawaii to sort out various family issues.

Here, the discovery filled road trip theme and storyline continues as a man (Will Forte) ends up driving his partially senile father (Bruce Dern) from Montana to Nebraska due to the latter's pig-headed belief that he's won a million dollars (after receiving a sweepstakes marketing prize letter in the mail). When we first see Woody Grant (Dern, in a wonderfully underplayed role considering how this sort of character could have been written and portrayed), he looks like a disheveled and maybe homeless man slowly shuffling along the highway, leaving Billings for his destination, undeterred by or oblivious to the fact that it's hundreds of miles away.

The man's wife (June Squibb in an award worthy if comically salty performance) has just about had enough of him and his behavior, as has his other son (Bob Odenkirk), Yet, Forte's character decides to give in, make the drive and prove that the winning notice is a sham. Along the way, they run into various obstacles (a sequence about lost teeth and train tracks is pretty much priceless), get to know each other (or least the son gets to learn about the father, especially regarding his earlier years), and come to realize how a financial windfall (or at least the promise and presumption of that) can influence people's behavior (most notably a former business partner played by Stacy Keach who wants in on the action).

Mixing mostly subdued satire with familial drama and themes of father-son dynamics, discovering facts about the earlier years of one's parents, and growing old and losing some control of mental faculties, Payne thankfully doesn't hammer home any of that. Nor is he in any hurry to tell the tale. That's not to imply by any means that it's slow or boring. Instead, the filmmaker simply lets it unfold, seemingly at its own pace.

The performances are solid across the board and Phedon Papamichael's black and white cinematography is sublime in its stark simplicity and capturing the essence of a bygone era even in a contemporary tale. While Dern's character at one point brushes off Mount Rushmore due it looking unfinished, most everything regarding "Nebraska" feels complete and just about right. Growing on me ever more since my first and only viewing of it, the film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed November 6, 2013 / Posted November 22, 2013


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