Nebraska (2013): Payne’s Monochromatic (Stale) Tale, Starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte

With Nebraska, his only sixth feature in a career spanning two decades, Alexander Payne adds another panel (though not a very good one) to a body of work that could be described as American regional cinema of lost souls.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

World-premiering at the Cannes Film Fest (it’s the second Payne film in competition, after the 2002 “About Schmidt”), “Nebraska” will be released by Paramount Vantage November 22, in time for awards considerations.

Paramount’s marketing team faces an uphill battle with a monochromatic picture (Payne’s first black-and-white feature), which lacks name stars, such as Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”) or George Clooney (“The Descendants”).

Visually, the heartland of “Nebraska” is no match for the colorful scenery of Hawaii, which was the setting of Payne’s last feature. The tone of the new film is also challenging, lacking the more overtly vivid and boisterous mood that has defined Payne’s previous films.

Payne is based in Los Angeles, but his filmic sensibility is clearly shaped by his roots in Omaha, Nebraska, where he grew up and still has a family there. “Nebraska” may not be the most seductive or commerial title for a feature these days—it’s too general and generic, which the movie is not.

Payne is an ironic-satirical director, but his elegiac celebration of a past that doesn’t exist anymore–be it shared family life, commitment to ancestors’ land, intimate interaction between generations, clearly defined ethics and morality, and so on, brings him closer than ever before to nostalgia, with an increasing touch of sentimentalism, of which he may or may not be aware. (I may be one of the few critics who did not like the cute ending of “The Descendants,” in which Clooney and his daughters share the same icecream while watching together TV).

Payne is attracted to a certain type of screen characters, largely outsiders, deviants, and losers. The protagonist of “Nebraska,” yet another sad-sack story, is closer in age to the floundering retiree that Jack Nicholson played in “About Schmidt.” His name is Woody Grant and he is played in an impressive, uncharacteristically restrained mode by Bruce Dern (The director’s first choice is rumored to have been Gene Hackman).

“I liked the humanity of my characters and the strange nature of the trips they are taking,” Payne has said before. This philosophy also applies to “Nebraska,” yet another Payne story of highly-flawed individuals trying (perhaps in vain) to find some sense or meaning in their humdrum lives. In each of his films, Payne has created a serio-comedy about an odyssey–literal, figurative, and existential– often forced upon his protagonists by the changing socio-economic circumstances.

Payne has been compared before to Preston Sturges, the great satirist director of the 1940s, who was under contract to Paramount. Beginning with the use of Paramount’s old logo, the name of the lead character (Woody), and the concern with the impact of changing economic status and celebrity on a group of diverse people, “Nebraska” pays homage to such Sturges’ wry and funny comedies as “Hail the Conquering Hero,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” and others.

Looking unkempt and disheveled for most of the tale, Dern plays Woody, an old cranky man in the declining years of his meaningless life. His motto, “If I don’t remember, then it doesn’t matter,” is not surprising, considering his senile state of mind and his lack of connection to people or places. Woody is first seen walking in the middle of nowhere–on a highway in Billings, Montana.

In “The Descendants,” Clooney goes through a mid-life identity crisis, which forces him to be a better, full-time father and thus get closer to his estranged daughters. In the new film, we also have an errant father (albeit older, much less appealing than Clooney’s character), but the gender of the offsprings is reversed, and the main interaction is between Woody and his son David (Will Forte, in excellent shape).

David, like most sons, wishes his father would be less reticent and more open and expressive about his feelings, so that they can develop a more intimate relationship. David’s mother, Kate (June Squibb), more than makes up for the father’s shortcomings: Given the choice, she will talk about the old days, but not in a favorable ways, at least not as far as her nebish husband is concerned.

Woody hits the road after receiving by mail a sweepstakes certificate, which he believes would entitle him to one million-dollar cash. June and David explain that it’s a scam, but they fail to dissuade Woody from going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his prize.

Realizing his dad’s determination, and initially feeling sorry for him, David decides to drive Woody to his fantasy-destination, hoping to bridge the gap between them, have some quality time with a man he never really got to know, before it’s too late.

It’s a tribute to Payne’s strong thematic concerns and distinctive authorial voice that even though he did not write the original scenario, which is by Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” bears his unmistakable personal signature. (If memory serves, it’s the first time that Payne doesn’t get writing or co-writing credit).

Like the father-son road trip, which is driven by getting the presumed prize, the other characters also hope to get something out of Woody’s new riches. For his part, however, Woody is too senile and confused to see those commercial and greedy inclinations.

The quality of road movies is measured by the nature of the stops made along the way, and the diversity of people interacted with. There’s brief stop at Mt. Rushmore, for which Woody shows disdain. We can’t help but recall fondly the great use Hitchcock made of this monumental site in “North by NorthWest.” A sequence in which Woody looks for his missing teeth along railway tracks is less funny than intended. In other words, the journey is sharply uneven in terms of events and people.

The two men stop for family reunion in the fictional town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his family. Joined by Kate and David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the members don’t seem to have much to talk about (even though they have not seen each other for a while), and instead sit aimlessly in front of their TV set.

The secondary characters are too much of one-dimensional stereotypes for a film by Payne. Ray’s overweight sons (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) are immature, lazy men who like to talk about cars. Had Payne written the screenplay, he would have paid more attention to them, instead of resorting to easy satirical caricatures.

According to “Nebraska,” sexual segregation still prevails in those provincial and shabby towns. While the male are silent and non-expressive, the females are livelier and more communicative. Again, it is Kate who may be too honest in revealing sexual secrets and scandals from the past, Then there is the town’s newspaper office worker (Angela McEwan), who unveils hitherto unknown information about Woody’s life.

Payne has been enamored of the character-driven movies of the 1970s, the last Golden Age of American auteurist cinema, and for “Nebraska,” he might have watched and been inspired by Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece, “The Last Picture Show,” also shot in black-and-white, which is set in a small-Texas town, where nothing much happens.

The locations that Payne and his writer chose, such as the cemetery, the morgue, the shabby farmhouse that Woody’s father had built, are all meant to convey collective sites in which people used to meet and socialize.

It was courageous of Payne, and commendable by Paramount’s top execs, to approve a black-and-white shoot in today’s marketplace.

Lacking narrative drive, Nebraska is Payne’s weakest feature to date, populated by uninteresting characters (especially the lead one), who lack sophistication and tend to see the world in black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.  The problem is not the characters’ advanced age, but their lack of interesting personalities.

Considering how slim and underwhelming the text is, Nebraska overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so,

Cast:

Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan

Credits

Released by Paramount
Production: Bona Fide
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Doug Mankoff, Neil Tabatznik, George Parra, Julie M. Thompson
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Dennis Washington
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Trent
Music: Mark Orton

Running time: 114 minutes