by Matt Levine
More than any other director in American movies, Alexander Payne demonstrates the fine line between misanthropy and cruelty. The former isn’t necessarily a flaw; if it’s patterned after the kind of sharp wit in Molière’s The Misanthrope, for example, it can be charmingly caustic, shrugging bemusedly at the lapses in intelligence or decency that all humans are occasionally guilty of. But the kind of bitterness that Payne occasionally exudes is something else: too often, he exploits his characters for a forced pluck of the heartstrings or a condescending laugh, lacking the honesty or complexity that such character studies require.
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Doug Mankoff, George Parra, Julie M. Thompson
Writer: Bob Nelson
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Editor: Kevin Tent
Music: Mark Orton
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan
Premiere: May 23, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 15, 2013
US Distributor: Paramount Vantage
This isn’t always the case. Election (1999), by far Payne’s funniest movie, takes constant pleasure in dashing the modest hopes of Matthew Broderick’s character, but it’s also extremely adept at fleshing out its two main antagonists (thanks largely to Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon). Sideways (2004) displays begrudging compassion for its characters’ dissatisfaction, and The Descendants (2011), Payne’s least condescending film, approaches its ensemble’s heartache with subtlety rather than derision. All of these films are flawed (especially given Payne’s disinterest in visual innovation), but they also demonstrate that he can be a compelling, observant humorist.
Yet Nebraska finds Payne in the same disdainful territory as his previous nadir, About Schmidt (2002), though at least this time there are no orphaned African children to provide a ludicrous dramatic epiphany. Nebraska’s primary theme is simple: rural Americans are petty dimwits who have nothing to hope for. Payne’s sympathy extends only to a few protagonists, as well as a single supporting character that provides a welcome respite from all the cruelty. Otherwise, these slack-jawed Nebraskans drink beer, watch football, and park lawnchairs in their front yard to watch the sparse traffic go by—the movie never seems to consider the possibility that they might have anything else going on in their heads.
The focus of our attention is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aged, jobless alcoholic surrounded by a harping wife (June Squibb) and two sons who have been embittered by Woody’s pathetic attempts at fatherhood. Often disoriented, gaping at the world with apparent incomprehension, Woody may not be as lost as he looks: mired in a depressed existence, he seems to be waiting despondently for anything to change. This transformation arrives, Woody thinks, in the form of a sweepstakes flyer he receives in the mail informing him that he’s won a million dollars. It’s clearly a scam, but Woody mulishly begins walking from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim his prize. Woody may even be aware of his stubborn gullibility: prize or no prize, his repeated attempts to walk across two states mean a temporary escape from his dreary existence. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) seems to realize this as well; after failing to dissuade his father from this dead-end plan, he agrees to drive him to Nebraska in order to claim his “million dollars.” As he tells his shrill, berating mother, why not let Woody play out his fantasy, especially as he may not have many years left to live?
En route to Lincoln, David and Woody stop off in the latter’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska (much to Woody’s chagrin), where much of his family still lives. The extended Grant family is an assortment of vapid simpletons who treat Woody like a celebrity when they hear about his purported winnings. Woody’s brother Ray always has an open can of cheap beer in hand; the longest conversation he participates in revolves around a ’73 Buick Impala his family may or may not have owned. Woody’s twin nephews, Bart and Cole (though they may as well have been named Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum), typically stare off into space, mouths agape—at least when they’re not criticizing the “Jap cars” David and his brother own. One insipid conversation between the males in the family is shot in a slightly high angle from the perspective of the all-important television, at which all of them are gaping vacantly; the audience literally looks down on their crass ineptitude as they struggle to converse. True, a few of the townspeople are kind, welcoming folks, but even they are depicted as simple salt-of-the-earth stereotypes, for whom even the empty promise of fortune is a momentous affair.
The most interesting character in the film (including Woody and David) is Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan), a sweet widower who owns and edits the small Hawthorne newspaper. She seems to be the only resident who recognizes that Woody’s winnings are nonexistent (after David informs her of this). She then tells David that she and his father had once dated, but that he left her for David’s mother because Peg “wouldn’t let him round the bases.” Peg also tells David of Woody’s service in the Marines during the Korean War, and that Woody was never the same after he returned, becoming taciturn and solemn—experiences David had never been aware of. Nebraska is at its best when it suggests the life Woody could have had if things had worked out differently, positing Woody’s denseness as a buffer against a world that has provided only unhappiness. Similarly, when the movie’s clichéd villain, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), maliciously tells David of the Native American woman that Woody had an affair with (and supposedly loved intensely), we get the sense that Woody’s life is a turbulent mystery that he keeps hidden to everyone but himself. The movie does, then, sympathize with Woody’s hardships, with David’s burgeoning realization that his father has lived a rocky life, and with Peg’s touching concern for Woody and the happiness she seems to have found in her own life—but Nebraska’s concern for its characters does not extend any further than these three characters. The tempered sympathy Nebraska shows for them is suffocated by the callous derision it applies to everyone else.
Given the glowing reviews Nebraska has received, critics seem to have been duped by the movie’s braindead-hick stereotypes. It’s tempting to attribute this partially to the age-old animosity between urbane critics and rural audiences, which dates back to Variety denigrating “the Sticks” as far back as the silent era. More likely, such critics point out that Payne himself grew up in Nebraska (in Omaha) and assume that his chiding characterizations are based in unflinching honesty. Having grown up in suburban Wisconsin, I can’t speak for rural Nebraska, but I was raised around a lot of small, agricultural communities whose inhabitants were not unanimously insipid, as they seem to be in Nebraska. And even if such representations are at all accurate, making a comedy whose humor is based primarily on ridicule seems lazy at best and malicious at worst.
Regardless of Nebraska’s condescending perspective, a greater problem may be the film’s willingness to give in to cliché for quick dramatic effect. There are elements of complexity in the film, but they eventually are dismissed for a tidy villain, a gratifying altercation, a grand dramatic gesture, and a sappy climax in which Woody gets the respect of his hometown community that he has sought for so long. Will the mild-mannered David work up the courage to punch the movie’s villain in a barroom showdown? Will the townspeople all happen to be on Main Street at the same time in order to witness Woody driving away in his fancy new truck? The dictates of lazy screenwriting make it happen. Normally I’m a sucker for male weepies in which fathers and sons reconcile (even the awful Robert De Niro potboiler City by the Sea had me tearing up), but in Nebraska, you can see the gears of the pre-patterned plot grinding so overtly that everything fails to connect emotionally.
At the very least, it would seem, Payne’s lack of visual innovation would seem corrected by Nebraska, which was shot in silky black-and-white by ace cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. It’s true that the bleakly beautiful landscapes and high-contrast views of small-town Nebraska are (by default) the most impressive aspects of the film. Yet why decide to shoot in black-and-white in the first place? Payne’s view of rural Nebraska as dull and empty is verified by the spare imagery, which posits the town of Hawthorne (not to mention Billings, Montana, earlier in the film) as wastelands lacking in vibrancy. The black-and-white aesthetic makes sense as an indication of the limited resources and impoverishment of the setting, but the movie only half-heartedly tries to evoke the economic hardships of Middle America as a societal context.
I didn’t love The Descendants when it came out in 2011, but in retrospect it seems like Payne’s strongest movie; it is, at least, his most empathetic, and the Hawaiian setting ensured some vivid imagery. With Nebraska, though, he’s back to the bad habits he practiced in About Schmidt: sour antipathy, an overall sense of condescension, and dramatic gimmicks too obviously meant to manipulate the audience. Clearly, Payne is comfortable making movies in and about his home state (Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt are also set there), but here’s hoping he strays beyond its borders for his next film.