Witney is giving odds on – and impressions of – the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscars this year. Today, he will look at the film he considers the second most baffling nominee, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
Alexander Payne’s movies are all about slow build. Like About Schmidt and The Descendants, his Nebraska all boils down to the very last scene. A put-upon recently-single fellow in Montana (Will Forte) learns that his near-senile father (Bruce Dern) is determined to travel to Nebraska to pick up a million-dollar prize that he assumes he won from the a Publisher’s Clearing House letter. The promise of a million dollars stirs up animosity and imagined debts (as it would) from Dern’s small-town family and friends (represented by wife June Squibb and colleague Stacy Keach). But it’s not until our hero learns what he can do to help his father than everything comes to a head, and the final scene in the film is a tear-jerking moment of small triumph. It’s as good as the tears in Schmidt or the couch cuddling in The Descendants.
I would argue that Nebraska – while just as honest and just as twee as Payne’s other films – is not as good as Schmidt or The Descendants, although it still possesses the director’s greatest strengths. Payne is very good at creating pseudo-pathetic, largely boring but very relatable small town everymen, who comically endure a long string of small humiliations on their way to ultimate emotional redemption (excepting the selfish teacher in his almost-there Election) whose tiny undocumented-by-life catharses end up being hugely important moments. His films are all very mannered comedies that invite us to laugh (gently) at and with the heroes.
And while I appreciate his wry sense of humor, Nebraska felt a mite exploitative to me. I understand that it was an accurate depiction of real-world small-town living (indeed, Payne himself is from Nebraska, calling on his real-life experiences), and I appreciate the accuracy and sensitivity that goes into lionizing a class of people often pegged as ordinary by us hoity-toity city dwellers, but I felt that Payne was inviting us to laugh perhaps a little bit too mockingly at the the foibles of yokels. Look at these folks in the sticks. They only have one main drag. Can you believe it? Although I admit that I was perhaps being a little too sensitive to this; Clearly, Payne is trying to depict something very immediately important to him. Family secrets abound in this broad universe either way, and the ultimate uncovering of emotional truths is what really matters.
Much has been made of the Oscar-nominated performance of June Squibb, Bruce Dern’s trash-talking 83-year-old wife, but I feel her character was the weakest part of Nebraska. I think the Academy must have a soft spot for trash-talking old ladies, as her character is a broad and unbelievable comic presence in an otherwise truth-laden story. I appreciate the daring it takes to flash one’s genitals at the gravestone of a long-spurned lover, but Squibb seems ill-suited to such material. If you’re going to have a near-slapstick character, you need a slapstick actress. Cloris Leachman would have knocked this role out of the park.
I’m a little baffled as to why this film was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a very good film, the deliberately drab black-and-white aesthetic is appealing, and I do love Payne’s emotional slow-burn techniques. But its relative quaintness and gentleness seem small when compared to much flashier films like 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. It didn’t, upon some reflection, make too many critical top-10 lists. It must have been that final scene, the one moment of quiet triumph wherein both father and son can finally prove to the world that they are capable of rising above. Also, The Academy has a love for Payne, one of the clearer voices in this generation’s team of filmmakers.
Odds to win: 75:1