Nebraska (Paramount Vantage, R)

Nebraska 75While usually when I accuse a filmmaker of being predictable I mean it as a major negative, it’s quite the opposite when someone is as predictably great as Payne is.

Nebraska 500

I’ve written in the past about how Alexander Payne is one of the few working directors with several feature films behind them who have never made a bad film; this is a very short list that includes people like Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell. Anderson’s and Russell’s respective streaks have them at six films apiece (this does not include Russell’s American Hustle, which is due out in a few weeks but is so far unseen as of this writing), and with Nebraska Payne pulls even with them.

Of course Payne is often (rightfully) credited for his humor, his empathy, and his ability to make a dramatic film that doesn’t really feel like a drama; the sort of film that moves you without you ever noticing that that’s what it’s going for. But another interesting thing is the patchwork quality of his overall oeuvre, and the way the plots and themes of his various movies intersect. Of course, Nebraska is the fourth Payne film set at least in part in Nebraska (my sister upon hearing the title, when it was announced: “It’s like when Baz Luhrmann directed Australia!”), but it’s also his third road trip movie, of which two of those three star a geriatric male. And the other geriatric road trip movie, 2002’s About Schmidt, has the actress who plays the lead’s wife in common, in June Squibb.

But anyway, Nebraska concerns a quiet old coot named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who lives in Montana, but sets out on a trip to Omaha when he mistakenly thinks he’s won a million dollars, on account of one of those Publisher’s Clearing House-type letters. Everyone in Woody’s life tries their best to convince Woody that it’s all a scam, but Woody isn’t having it, in a combination of some fading vestige of stubbornness and onset of senility. Seeing that talking him out of going is futile (he sets off on foot more than once in the film’s first third), his son David (Will Forte) agrees to take him, at least in part because he recognizes that this may be one of his last opportunities to spend some time with his somewhat unknowable father before he (Woody) loses his mind for good.

The meat of the film comes when David and Woody stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. (Side note: Hawthorne does not actually exist, and I only know that it’s supposedly in Nebraska thanks to the press notes — I must’ve missed that in the movie.) That’s where the majority of Woody’s family and friends still live, and since they haven’t been present for Woody’s slow-burn mental deterioration, and also because he is actually demonstrably going to Omaha for some reason, they take the news of Woody’s supposed windfall at face value, which causes a whole bunch of problems. Thankfully, these problems bring Woody’s wife Kate (Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) out to Hawthorne as well, and Kate offers the film some serious comic relief. She’s hilarious at first, and just when you think her shtick is starting to get old, she starts to show some real emotion to add a new resonance to the performance. Also, take a minute to consider the fact that comedians Forte and Odenkirk are straight men here, and the eighty-something Squibb is the comic relief. Then consider the fact of how well it works.

If you’ve seen basically any of Payne’s other movies, you’ll know more or less what to expect of this one — his films are very fun to watch and go down easy, but usually feature an emotional punch without really ever seeming to try for one. Nebraska’s no different, really. And while usually when I accuse a filmmaker of being predictable I mean it as a major negative, it’s quite the opposite when someone is as predictably great as Payne is. | Pete Timmermann

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