Sunday, February 2, 2014

Humor and Affiliation: Nebraska

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendents) is a refreshing surprise. It is my favorite pick. Unassuming, shot in black and white (cinematographer Phedon Papamichael), with luscious views of the plains states, or plain states to some: cows, rolled hay bales, small towns and lonesome barns, it made me laugh! even more than the absurdity of American Hustle or the eerie quirkiness of Her. But its unexpected humor, like Garrison Keiller’s Lake Wobegon, grabs us at our most human, and we nod with the knowingness of lost tenderness.

Original screenplay by Bob Nelson, Nebraska is a road trip rich in characters, compassion and raw humor. An aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), with declining cognitive function who is no longer allowed to drive, so fervently believes himself to be the million dollar winner of a magazine marketing sweepstakes that he is willing to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings even as his harridan wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two sons try to convince him the letter is a scam. On their journey there is a stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where avaricious family and former friends, a felon nephew, and  the truth according to Kate-- whose forthright and funny commentary is Oscar worthy— do not dissuade but initially embolden Woody on his quixotic quest.

We like Woody’s younger son David (Will Forte) right off. It is not just his nuanced ‘porcelain prince’ face, or that his former live-in girlfriend does not look like a Barbie, or even that, like Judge Reinhold’s character in Ruthless People (no one had more ruth), he sells stereo equipment. David carries within him a compassion for his flawed father, and his earnest search for answers from a father who has none, his unflagging willingness to forgive his father’s previous failings and bring Woody a little happiness in his last years cinch for us David’s understated heroism. We wonder from where did David receive his bounty of compassion.

Even this graceless age of economic hard times and ruthless every-man-for-himself mentality cannot obscure the understanding of kinship by a son for his undeserving father. It is not from Woody that David receives any answers. David nonetheless learns things about Woody from those who knew him back when – there is a glance between Woody and his former girlfriend (Angela McEwan), and what might have been, that is hauntingly wistful. The film score by the reunited Tin Hat adds well to the mood of the film. David protecting the dignity of his father is a peerless grace in an age devoid of it. If all the other Best Pic nominations echo contemporary alienation, selfishness, and indifference, Nebraska reminds us of our communal and filial bonds.

Nebraska is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography and Original Screenplay.

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