Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Payne’

11th February
2014
written by Mad Cow

Rated R for some language

Mad Cow’s Rating:

Beside all of the grand and glorious best picture nominees for 2013, this film is modest in the extreme. Filmed in black and white, it’s about family relationships, American Midwestern culture, and the bonds between father and son. Most of the plot is about sensibilities, old age and hopes and dreams. It’s exquisite in its presentation.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, Monster, Django Unchained) is an old guy, long-term alcoholic, who receives a letter in the mail declaring that he is an “official winner” of one million dollars. Even though everyone in his life agrees that the letter is a scam, he believes it is true. Not trusting the post office, he wants to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Since he can’t drive and no one will take him, he sets off several times to walk to the company headquarters there. His son David (Will Forte, Saturday Night Live) decides to humor him and take him. It’s sort of a road trip movie, with a stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s home town, to visit relatives.

Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Citizen Ruth) was born in Nebraska and clearly knows a lot about it. Shooting in black and white was a brilliant stroke, enhancing the striking backdrop of flat fields and grasses cut through by farm roads and highways and not much else. The lack of color establishes a relationship as well with the stark character of Woody, greying and old and probably dying. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants, The Pursuit of Happyness, Walk the Line, Sideways) expertly catches a mood. Writer Bob Nelson (TV series – The Eyes of Nye, The Magic Hour) also seems to understand the Midwest, since he is from South Dakota.

As in many families with an elder whom nobody knows what to do with, there are varying opinions about the advisability of going along with Woody’s fantasy. His wife Kate (June Squibb) and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) think it’s a waste of time and anyway, Kate is at the end of her rope with Woody constantly wandering off. Ross recommends they put him in a home. Only David, recently broken up with his girlfriend and at loose ends, wants to go along. Neither son has ever gotten much from his father and maybe this is David’s last chance to try. We understand David’s longing to do something for his father and by doing this maybe get some handle on his own life.

The film was characterized as a comedy for the Golden Globes and it is pretty funny, with light moments throughout. But one would never exit the theatre saying “What a riot” I don’t think. The highs and lows spot each other but we know that serious stuff is going on. At times Nelson and Payne come close to crossing a line from comedy to condescension. The characters of Woody’s brothers and nephews in particular skirt the edge of the stereotype of ignorant country bumpkins.

David’s two cousins (Bart and Cole, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), whose only interest seems to be in cars driven wildly fast, are vaguely reminiscent of The Beverly Hillbillies. To say that the men in the family don’t talk much is an understatement. Also there is a rape joke, spoken by the women no less, NOT funny. At the end of the day, though there are other characters that indicate that not everyone shares the Grant family’s traits. The women who married into the family come off way better than the men, even as the men evoke our sympathy.

Woody’s wife Kate has clearly put up with a lot in her life but somehow she can continue to stick up for herself. How come David is doing this for his dad when she could use some help? She is outspoken about the past and not shy about gossiping about people’s sex lives, including her own. Squibb is delightful in this role. David learns a lot from her and from visiting Woody’s old friends in Hawthorne. Stacy Keach is particularly good as Woody’s former partner and co-owner of a gas station in Hawthorne.

It’s fitting that the movie is named after a place since it’s about place as well. Hawthorne Nebraska represents the many crumbly, half-deserted towns, the old timey bars and the farm families of the Midwest. It’s a slice of Americana. (Just, by the way, as About Schmidt is, albeit a different slice.)The people work very hard for little money. They know just about everything about each other. Their personalities are like everyone’s everywhere but they may be just a little bit stronger, or anyway have different defenses, because they’ve had to endure the harsh weather and economic uncertainty of that part of the country. But they are not stereotypes, not cut off from the world and Payne does not present a romantic picture, just a fairly realistic one.

Bruce Dern’s performance is beautifully precise. Woody does not have Alzheimer’s although he may be hard of hearing. He is probably slow to compute some things, having lost some brain cells in his years of drinking. But he’s not stupid and may just be deciding not to respond at times. We are in the place of David in wondering what’s on Woody’s mind. Yet he brilliantly conveys the longing attached to that million dollars, into which he has piled all of his hopes and dreams. We begin to believe this dream too, a dream of salvation, atonement, making up for all the losses and lost opportunities of a life. We want him to make it to Lincoln and we want him to win, just as we all want to win.

If you don’t get to see this movie in the theatre, see it at home. It’s real. Don’t miss it.

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