Inner Struggle, by Tyler Smith
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a tough film to pin down. At times, it seems to be about an old man’s regret. At others, the film appears to focus on the rifts and grudges within a family. Then, when you’re not looking, the director seems to want to say something about the petty, vacuous qualities in the average midwesterner, which he then tries to undercut with scenes of genuine sincerity and affection. We start to wonder exactly which of these Payne is trying hardest to explore. In the end, we come to realize that Nebraska is all of the above. This can be both a good and bad thing, and is both in abundance.
In many ways, Alexander Payne has gotten a little soft as he has gotten older. His first film is a comedy about abortion. He went on to make a deeply cynical film about school politics and overachievers, which he then followed up with a thoroughly depressing couple of comedies about people whose lives are going nowhere. With each film, the cynicism lessened, while the glimmers of hope grew and grew. When he finally arrived at The Descendants, we had a film that, though very competently made and brilliantly acted, seemed to lack the trademark Payne worldview entirely, opting to temper the sentimentality with heartbreak rather than cynicism.
With Nebraska, it seems that Payne is trying to embrace the newer, softer, more humanistic of his later films, while trying to harken back to his earlier, edgier films. The story of an old man and his son on a fool’s errand to claim a $1,000,000 prize has the terrible potential to be overly sappy and sentimental. However, Payne tries to stay true to his characters (the two leads, anyway) and refuses to cut them any slack. This makes some of the more conventional beats go down smoother than they would otherwise.
For example, as the old man, Woody Grant, we have Bruce Dern, an actor whose face has become so weather-beaten over the years that all one really has to do to tell the story of this man’s life is let the camera linger on it. Woody is a man of few words who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and Dern refuses to play him any other way. He doesn’t give sly suggestions to the audience that, yes, this man is tough on the outside, but he’s really a teddy bear deep down. No, Dern’s performance is committted and nearly impenetrable. Ironically, by playing everything small, we’re better able to pick up on the subtle emotional cues that he puts out. The extended blink, the slightly-furrowed brow, the smile that is barely there; we welcome them when they show up. Had a different actor played Woody, the character could have seemed like a lovable curmudgeon, which would have been particularly insufferable.
It is the desire to portray a patently sentimental story without pandering that, I think, is the film’s strength and its weakness. While I appreciate Payne’s unblinking look at his protagonist, his gaze towards almost every other character turns more than a little mocking; perhaps even a little judgmental. Woody’s wife, well-played by June Squibb, is a “typical midwestern housewife.” That is to say, she is manipulative and petty. And while Squibb does what she can to make screenwriter Bob Nelson’s words consistent and realistic, this woman- while sometimes entertaining- is really just a series of quirky contradictions. “She may seem small and meek, but, man, wouldn’t it be hilarious if she curses like a sailor? And if she flashes the gravestone of a former suitor? That would be awesome and, y’know, when you think about it, that’s exactly what these people are like. They may seem all nice and shit, but they’re really all just hypocrites.” In an attempt to portray a natural, human complexity, Payne and Nelson go too far and make the woman a cartoon. She is allowed a real moment or two here and there, and, in these, we are able to really see the depths of June Squibb’s talents, but she never seems like a real person.
The same can be said of Woody’s old business partner, Ed Pegram, played with gusto by Stacy Keach. He is a loud, obnoxious man who nonetheless seems friendly enough. Once he gets word of the money that Woody has supposedly won, he changes his tune. He expresses to David, Woody’s son, that he believes Woody owes him a fairly sizable debt. David is incredulous, stating that his dad hasn’t actually won anything, but Ed isn’t having any of it. In fact, by the end of the scene, he becomes downright threatening. It’s one thing to make the character two-faced; it’s quite another to make him come off like some kind of crime boss!
These are the kinds of cartoonish flourishes that one would expect to find in Alexander Payne’s earlier work, and that are in direct opposition to the tone he tries to strike here. Not only are we allowed the pleasure of Bruce Dern’s nuanced performance, but we also get moments with other characters, who show up for a scene or two, reveal untold depths of character with just a few words, and then move on. This light touch is particularly refreshing, and reminded me of some of the better moments in Sideways, when Payne was transitioning from a brash, edgy young director to a more mannered, studious older director.
I consider Sideways to be Payne’s best film, precisely because he is able to balance both the jaded cynicism of his earlier work and the humanism that he would come to embrace. It seemed to happen naturally, almost as though he wasn’t consciously aware that he was changing. As such, the film has a nice, consistent flow to it, moving from darkness to light and back again with ease. The film existed in that stylistic tension and was fascinating as a result.
Nebraska is the work of a director at war with himself. He seems to want to make a scathing indictment of midwestern values and archetypes on one hand, while also wanting to tell the touching story of an old man reflecting on his life and relationships on the other. He seems unable to balance them like he could in Sideways and About Schmidt (which also had its share of cartoonish character types). Perhaps he would have been better off simply committing to one or the other, because, as the film stands now, it doesn’t hang together as a complete work.
So, is the film recommendable? In the end, I would say yes. There may be scenes- and indeed whole characters- that don’t sit quite right with me, but, when the film works, it really works. A muttered line here, an silent look between characters; these are the things that illustrate a shared history amongst the characters. There is often a silent understanding of how things work in this family, and it is a dynamic that everybody can relate to. I most certainly can, to such a degree that, as the film ended, the elements that bothered me had started to fade away, only to be replaced with the thought, “Hm. I haven’t talked to my brother in a while. I really should try to make more of an effort to keep in touch.”
This is one of the great things about movies, and art in general. Sometimes, it calls attention to itself, but other times it is content to simply make a suggestion- ask an uncomfortable question, bring up a faded memory- and then sit back and let us take care of the rest. Nebraska may have its share of notable problems, but the emotional and relational honesty that it occasionally captures more than outweighs them. It is a film worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call my brother…