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August 19, 2014

Nebraska (2013)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

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Synopsis: Seventy-something Montana resident Woody (Bruce Dern) of ailing mind and body, conceives an obsession with a scam of a postal certificate he receives claiming him to be the recipient of a $1m prize-fund. Taken to setting off on-foot the many hundreds of miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘prize’, Woody’s worried son, David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody there instead, calling in on Woody’s many relatives in Hawthorne, NA en route….

Review: Nebraska finds Alexander Payne on more fertile ground again after what I felt was a misstep with the overly lenient and sentimental Hawaii family caper, The Descendants. It’s also one of the most pictorally concentric American films of recent years – Phedon Papamichael’s stunning black-and-white photography compliments the marginal ‘American Gothic’ subject matter to a T. It really is one of the best examples of form merging so organically into content, and augmented by the fact that Payne cast exactly the right faces and (non) names for the parts, Nebraska is evidence that Payne has now utterly nailed this genre of bittersweet, Middle America road movies down.

But therein lies the problem. Nebraska felt to me like an overly clinical film, far too dramatically managed and choreographed, and Payne is now in danger of boxing himself into a corner with his ‘signature’, relying on the same dramatic framework each time, only with different geographic locuses and plot hooks. Take Nebraska – it has all the hallmarks of a screenplay-by-numbers: a protagonist with a conflict, he sets out on a quest, there’s a nominal villain, lessons are learned, there’s conflict and resolution, then moments of crowdpleasing catharsis (when David strikes the sleazy Ed is one such case in point). Of course, Payne is intelligent enough to add nuance to the cruder elements of this storytelling formula, but even then, his conceits are telegraphed – Woody may not get his $1m, but he gets a cap which forlornly ascribes that he’s a “winner” (we get it!), and in the end, he gets all he truly wanted (a truck and a compressor, the chance to drive, a semblance of dignity back, and an opportunity to re-connect with his loved ones). Don’t get me wrong – if all Payne does for the rest of his career is play variations on this same template then I won’t be too disappointed, as he still comes up with cracking little tales and milieus (I think About Schmidt and Sideways are bona fide modern American classics), but how greater still if he could transcend all that for something a little less neat and prescriptive. (August 2014)

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