Monday, February 10, 2014

Oh, Father: Why I'm Now Rooting for "Nebraska" to Win the Best Picture Oscar

Nebraska is no longer just a U.S. state I've never been to. Nor is it merely the title of a critically acclaimed 1982 Bruce Springsteen album. Now first and foremost for me, it's a beautiful love story about a son trying to reach his elderly father. Every middle-aged man with a distant but loving dad who was there but wasn't will get Nebraska, which I finally got around to seeing last night, even if he hasn't spoken to his own dad in years -- especially if he hasn't spoken to his own dad in years.

I admit that I groaned on the inside when the plot introduced itself early on: Cranky father and earnest son embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, so that the dad can claim a sweepstakes prize there. "Another parent-child road/guilt trip," I said to myself. As much as I enjoyed the one Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen took a couple of years ago in The Guilt Trip, did I really need/want to sit through another one? That's the last time I judge a two-hour movie based on the first few minutes.

There is an episode of The Golden Girls in which Dorothy lies to Sophia and makes her believe that she's been hired as the new activities director of a Miami retirement home because Dorothy knows it's the only way to admit Sophia as a daytime resident. Otherwise, she'd never go willingly. When the ruse is eventually revealed, as they almost always are on The Golden Girls, Sophia gives Dorothy and the head of the retirement home a speech about how elderly people want to be treated like vital, still-living-and-breathing human beings, not museum pieces. It's a recurring theme in Golden Girls episodes that revolve around Sophia.

Unlike the loquacious Sophia Petrillo, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) doesn't say much in Nebraska. Best Actor Oscar nominee Dern's portrayal here is as physical as the ones I know him best for (in The Great Gatsby and Coming Home, for which he earned his previous Oscar nod, for Best Supporting Actor), but for all that he communicates through Woody's labored old-man movements, this performance is quieter, more lived-in. (I would give him an Oscar nomination solely for the way his face lights up when David, the youngest of Woody's two sons, suggests that they go and look for the stolen sweepstakes letter.) If Woody spoke up more, I'm pretty sure he would say the same thing as Sophia.

I haven't spent much time in the middle of the United States, but Nebraska director Alexander Payne (who turns 53 today, so happy birthday to him!) certainly has a knack for capturing what I imagine must be the rhythm of middle-American life. His specialty is middle aged-to-elderly men whom life has left weathered and disappointed, just short of bitter. In a sense, Omaha, Nebraska's Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election, Omaha's Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) in About Schmidt, San Diego's Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, Honolulu's Matt King (George Clooney) in The Descendants (my least favorite Payne film), and now Billings' Woody Grant in Nebraska are all in the same boat, row, row, rowing, and sailing slowly to nowhere.

Payne's films are about resignation, too, realizing your lot in life and coming to terms with it. Election's Tracy Flick and perhaps Sideways' Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) aside, there's nothing particularly aspirational about Payne's people, not in the Type-A, go-getter sense of the word. They're filled with regret, and though they're often struggling to connect -- with estranged wives, as Jim McAllister and Miles Raymond were, with sullen daughters, as widowers Warren Schmidt and Matt King both were, or with an alcoholic dad, like Nebraska's David Grant (ex-SNLer Will Forte, more than holding his own) -- there's no flame of hope, no rays of light. Even Payne's version of Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on earth, looks kind of dark and foreboding.

I understand these sentiments all too well (they were perhaps most eloquently expressed in Virginia Madsen's haunting speech about the life span of wine in 2004's Sideways and in Jack Nicholson's tears at the end of About Schmidt), but being an East Coaster, I find Payne's favorite setting strange and unfamiliar, all flat, expansive plains and even flatter, plainer people. His Nebraska-based movies almost feel like foreign films in English to me. Never has this been more the case than in the case of Nebraska.

This could be About Schmidt 10, maybe 15, years later, if Warren Schmidt had been an alcoholic with two sons instead of a daughter, and if his wife (June Squibb, who is also Bruce Dern's wife in Nebraska) had lived. Or maybe The Last Picture Show: The Twilight Years, detailing what happened to those beautiful losers in director Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 classic -- which, like Nebraska, was filmed in black and white -- in their final days.

It's a shame that Oscar couldn't make room for Will Forte in the Best Supporting Actor category, especially since he's technically a lead and does the bulk of emotional heavy lifting in the film. (Best Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb brings the comic relief, and she brings it broadly, like BSA nominee Kathy Bates did in About Schmidt.) In a way, Nebraska is really Forte's film, since we see it through David's puppy-dog eyes, and his emotional arc is at its center. David is a sad, sensitive soul with commitment issues (his inability to commit to his estranged girlfriend is juxtaposed nicely with a couple that's reluctant to commit to a set of speakers at the electronics store where he works as a salesman), and Forte nails that aspect with minimal fuss. I haven't connected with my own dad in years, but through Forte, I feel like I connected with David's.

The film makes a tough but insightful statement about how relatives are basically like strangers, passing in and out of each other's lives, without actually being a part of them. The extended Grant family in Nebraska sits around watching TV and eating, making small talk about old times, going on and on about the way things were, reconstructing the past in order to benefit financially from it in the present, but they never discuss anything quite so meaningful as the way things are. David clearly wants to connect with his parents, both of whom are remote in different ways, but it's like he's pounding on the door and nobody can hear him knocking.

One of the most telling scenes in Nebraska is the one where the elderly Grant brothers -- David's dad and uncles -- as well as a younger cousin are all sitting in front of the TV. As they're making small talk, their eyes rarely leave the screen. The sequence is filmed from the point of view of a pastor (the TV?) surveying his congregation. It's like Payne is looking (slightly) down on them and saying, "Check out these zombies." The men's mouths occasionally move to release a brief statement, but the rest of their bodies remain frozen. Who hasn't been in a room full of people just like that?

To the right, David sits, uneasily, clearly uninterested in what's on TV, his eyes darting to whoever is speaking, as if he's hoping to discover something, anything about this company of strangers and by extension, something, anything about himself. He observes and listens silently, never saying a word, yet speaking to me, for me, about me in a way no other film character has this Oscar season.
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