A Look Back: “Nebraska”.

Once upon a time, Alexander Payne was New Hollywood’s answer to Hal Ashby, or arguably Paul Mazursky. Payne was and is a humanist with a light comic touch whose early, unruly comedies revealed often shattering truths about their characters. “Election” remains one of the great comic breakthroughs of the 90’s, and while each of the films in Payne’s impressive filmography have their undeniable virtues, I would argue each subsequent picture has proved just a mite less interesting then the one that preceded it. “Election,” for better or worse, remains the perfect exhibit of Payne’s talents: it’s a sharp-witted psychocomedy with a heart of ice and a handful unforgettable comic characters, like Reese Witherspoon’s pathological high-school overachiever Tracy Flick and Matthew Broderick’s meek, vengeful substitute teacher. “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” are both fine, deeply funny films, but each flounders under the weight of a self-imposed literary portent that was absent from “Election’s” fleet, snippy black comedy. “Sideways” in particular manages to find poetry in an unusual subject — a pair of middle-aged best friends, an alcoholic writer and a philandering would-be actor — schmoozing through California’s wine country. The question remains: would Payne ever reach the heights of “Election” again?

By the time the director stooped to the depths of “The Descendants” — a dopey, waterlogged family drama inexplicably starring George Clooney as a rich cuckold in Hawaii whose life and marriage inevitably go under — I was almost ready to write Payne off entirely. That movie boasted none of the director’s trademark humanity or bleak, corrosive humor; it felt like a bland made-by-committee entry in the mold of a feel-good Sundance crowd pleasure instead of another deeply serious comedy from one of America’s most original filmmakers. “The Descendants” was met with rapturous praise anyway, causing me to re-think my priorities. Would Payne ever be great again? Turns out, I didn’t have to wait long to find out, and it’s a good thing I didn’t write him off: in 2013, the Omaha-born director came storming back into the cinematic landscape with a purpose in “Nebraska,” a deeply moving black-and-white character study that’s also a rich, smart and loving look at a neglected patch of the American landscape.

“Nebraska” possesses a lot of the other hallmarks of Payne’s work: road trips, dark humor, fraught family relationships, and a clear-eyed and affectionate view of the American Midwest, just to name a few. Yet it might also maybe the sweetest movie the director has ever made. In spite of the movie’s rotating gallery of prickly and disagreeable characters, “Nebraska” might boast the most unadulterated heart of any Payne film to date. By scaling back to his independent roots, Payne gets to the core of his strengths as a storyteller. “The Descendants” was ultimately crippled by its self-important prestige trappings and general lack of real humor, (that movie was penned by “The Way Way Back” scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who originally wrote George Clooney’s henpecked schlub role for comic Louis C.K.) but “Nebraska” feels like Payne is starting fresh. He seems energized again, drunk on the possibilities of intimate and empathetic cinematic storytelling. “Nebraska,” as mournful and sad as it can occasionally be, is ultimately a movie about embracing life and the ones you love, warts and all. For its director and its characters, it feels like a new lease on life.

The principal protagonist of Payne’s “Nebraska” is a demented, hot-tempered geezer named Woody Grant, played in a mesmerizing key of abrasion and buried regret by the indispensable Bruce Dern. Woody’s just received a letter in the mail notifying him of a $1,000,000 collections prize that awaits him in the small factory town of Billings, Montana. He has a wimpy, good-hearted son named Dave (a terrific Will Forte) who is an electronics store salesman whose latest relationship has just fallen to pieces as soon as the movie opens. Depressive but ultimately kind and noble, Dave knows his father’s golden letter is a scam, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell the stubborn old man to give it a rest. Woody’s wife, played with notes of squirrelly mischief and the heart of a lion by the Oscar-nominated June Squibb, is, in her way, just as tenacious and hard-headed as her husband. “You dumb cluck,” she chides Woody. “You should’ve worked for that money and earned it.” She’s pure Midwestern pragmatism: if you got a wound, rub some dirt on it. Obviously, Mama Grant is adamantly opposed to her son taking Woody on a wild-goose chase throughout the Midwestern flatlands, but they go anyway. Along the way, Payne gets all of the little details just right, from Woody’s unplanned visit to a low-rent dentist after he takes a fall and cracks his teeth, to Dave’s creepy, lecherous cousins, one of whom is doing community service on account of a statutory rape charge. Payne’s marvelous depiction of Nebraska’s roadside diners, its smokey old-man bars, its abandoned railway tracks and the ancient suburban homes that line its tree-dotted streets is nothing short of bracingly poetic. It’s like vintage Jim Jarmusch by way of “The Last Picture Show”.

One criticism that has clearly stuck with Payne over the years is that he’s too hard on his characters, or that he’s setting them up to fail. It’s a critique that also plagues the work of the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, but I find this argument to be fundamentally punitive, though it may possess merit in individual cases. For sure, Payne still sketches his small-town little people with shades of satirical contempt and derision. And yet there’s something undeniably loving about his pointed mockery: the film’s bluesy humor contains the gruff, loving air of a tough-ass dad, not unlike the one Dern plays in the film. Payne is also smart not to forego his innate sense of sympathy, one of his chief qualities as a director. A scene where Forte’s character tracks down his father’s high school girlfriend at the offices of the town newspaper is as marvelously touching as anything I’ve seen Payne direct. Ditto for the movie’s heartbreaking denouement, in which both Woody and his son are finally able to see the road ahead of them, and just where their radically divergent paths may take them.

2013 was a great year for cinema in general, and also a year distinguished by big, ambitious pictures. We all remember the apoplectic rush of “12 Years a Slave,” the dreamy bliss of “Her,” the unhinged alpha-male dementia of “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Some of us consider that the Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” should be mentioned in that same company, and then there’s the radically singular filmmaking of postmodern deconstructionists like Harmony Korine (whose “Spring Breakers” came out that same year) and Edgar Wright (see “The World’s End”). And yet that year was also host to some great films that just happened to be smaller in their execution and profile: movies like David Gordon Green’s spellbinding “Prince Avalanche,” a warm, observant portrait of seclusion and male bonding, or Noah Baumbach’s sparkling “Frances Ha,” which turned present-day gentrified New York into the modern-day equivalent of Francis Truffaut’s Paris. “Nebraska,” released in the same year, deserves that same degree recognition: it is beautiful, bitter and quietly seismic in its emotional impact. With its wonderful, rootsy folk score by Mark Orton and crisp black and white cinematography that lingers in the mind like a languid dream, “Nebraska” is touching, hilarious and true — a gem in its director’s body of work. After bandying around with Oscar bait with decidedly mixed results, it seems that one of America’s most foremost comic filmmakers has stumbled upon his old voice again.

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