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Cannes 2013: Alexander Payne's Nebraska Is a Minor Film Lacking in Revelations

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 23, 2013 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 23, 2013 |

To paraphrase Beckett: crrrrrrrrritics! You never know what they’re going to think. Rather bored and dejected during the projection here in Cannes of Alexander Payne’s latest film, I was startled to hear a riotous round of applause at the end of the screening, and all the more so to emerge to a chorus of praise for the film on Twitter. I concede that the film has some qualities, but it strikes me as a very minor film, and one whose execution leaves a little to be desired.

Nebraska is a blue collar, small-town America tale of a man (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) taking a trip to Lincoln to pick up the winnings that the confused old man thinks he has come into. David, the son, is humoring his father in order to give him “something to live for,” as he states to his overbearing mother in what seemed to me like a disastrously clunky line of exposition (among many in the film). En route, David and his father stop off at Woody’s hometown, and the son makes some discoveries about his father that bring the two men closer together.

Filmed very soberly in black and white, Nebraska is a self-conscously small film, telling a bare-bones story: if it were written fiction, it would be a short story. It works quite hard to be a kind of Alice Munro sort of story, as the physical journey the two men take gradually turns into an emotional one, a trip back into Woody’s youth. Here, we discover the reasons for the old man’s alcoholism (because these things always have just the one spur), and learn more about his relationship with David’s mother. But all of this is spelled out in so many scenes where people explain things to a perpetually wide-eyed and innocent Forte, that the story begins to pall. How can he know so little about his father? There is a scene where David’s mother and father take him to the town graveyard, and there David’s mother says, “That’s the grave of your father’s younger brother, David. He died when he was just two years old. You’re named after him.” Riiiight. And David’s just learning all of this now? He is also told by a journalist working for the town all about his father’s involvement in the Korean war: again, I struggle to believe that this is for David’s benefit rather than that of the audience.

The script is similarly lacking in other areas: people in the cinema were hooting with laughter, I should report in the interest of fairness, but I was sincerely baffled that anyone might be getting a kick out of the gags in this very tepid screenplay. There was one terrific joke played brilliantly by the mother, in the cemetery — I won’t spoil the hilarity, but it involves her undercutting a sardonic quip with a reassuring line afterwards that contains an even more upsetting revelation: in a handful of instances like this, Payne isn’t afraid to skirt some dark territory. But a lot of the film is caught up in detailing inane physical jokes — the two men looking for the old men’s teeth, for example — or getting easy laughs from facile shock. I also have to state while I’m lamenting the film’s unfunniness that I was aghast at Will Forte’s performance in this film: not only does he not convey any sort of emotion in the film’s more dramatic territory, but he crucially undersells all his funny bits. Isn’t the guy some sort of comedian? There is a catastrophic bit where Dern and he both fake each other out — but neither one of them lands their lines with the right timing, so you’re left with a drab scene of two men telling each other a boring lie. Forte’s colourless performance is matched by Dern’s: he adroitly suggests an old man in a permanent state of confusion and does well with a couple of grouchy line readings, but I didn’t see anything to suggest the inner depth and turmoil that it might have been useful to witness in his character.

This isn’t to say that the film has no merit: it is a very well made, often engaging film, with great photography of America. The movie has some good stuff to say about an America in economic recession, especially in the scenes set in the smaller town where Woody grew up. David works at a job that doesn’t seem to be going very well, and his extended family all seem to struggle too; there is a good conversation on the provenance of everyone’s cars, played for laughs, that gently highlights an American decline. The film also comments on American decline through the travails of the old man, a war hero of yesteryear, Woody. Woody’s full name is Woodrow Grant — a mash-up of two ex-Presidents, and the journey to Nebraska winds up in Lincoln. En route, the men stop off at Mount Rushmore, and that starts to be a few too many Presidents.

Ultimately, this film feels to me like a minor, very small and gentle film with no great revelations, no instances of artistic brio; everything is done more or less competently. That isn’t really what I look for in cinema, but I daresay some people might enjoy this sort of thing.

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