Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 12/09/13 05:25:19

"Payne & Gain"
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s nothing new to cite an upcoming Alexander Payne picture as worth anticipating, but “Nebraska” isn’t quite the pure experience cinephiles have come to cherish. Payne is behind the lens for this excursion into a rural and forgotten pasture of modern American history, but the screenplay is credited to Bob Nelson, a notable detour given Payne’s usual authorial presence. “Election, “Sideways” and “The Descendants” all succeeded on the back of their creator’s controlled, touching and natural grasp of everyday drama; rendering “Nebraska” a strange anomaly. After viewing this restrained and masterful feature it’s easy to understand why Payne agreed to helm; Nelson’s story a near perfect fit for the director’s sensibility. It also allows Payne another chance to exhibit his talents for casting and sustaining creative dynamism with actors, drawing wonderful turns from a bevy of thespians, most notably a feisty yet vulnerable Bruce Dern.

Having received a letter from a company in Lincoln naming him as the winner of a $1,000,000 sweepstake, aged and alcohol dependant Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is insistent upon collecting the dough. His wife (played sublimely by June Squibb) and kids are adamant it’s a hoax, preventing Woody from making the journey, until younger son David (Will Forte) capitulates and agrees to take him. Saddling up for a weekend road-trip the pair venture into the heartland of Woody’s youth, encountering faces and places from across the expanse of his lengthy life. Woody remains focused on retrieving the spoils, but for David the expedition gifts him insights into his ancestry that prove shocking, educational and illuminating.

Drenched in nostalgic black and white cinematography, “Nebraska” is a film about the past, setting out its stall early with the appearance of a dated Paramount logo. Nelson’s screenplay provides viewers with a beautiful synergy of character, locale and experience in its exploration of one man’s life, depicting a richly detailed tapestry of 20th century Americana in the process. Everything in the film’s mise-en-scene (including its star) harks back to a bygone era, filling “Nebraska” with roving countryside, traditional printing presses, retro vehicles and a sense of male stoicism no longer fashionable. The feature finds particular interest in contrasting Dern and Forte’s characters, charting clear differences between generational divides. One’s a doer the other’s a considerate talker, a notion explored both through comedy (the natives of Woody’s home find it hysterical how long David takes to drive places) and drama. It’s the latter that feels most rewarding come the film’s end, as David slowly manages to fathom an understanding of his father’s upbringing, finding small justifications for his drinking and churlish behaviour. “Nebraska” never feels the need to spell much out for the viewer, but measured acting and moments of gorgeous clarity provide ample windows into the souls of its characters.

Dern is mesmerizing, bringing distinguished physicality and tangible personality to the lead. Bit parts in films like “The Hole” and “Django Unchained” have formed the backbone of his recent filmography, but here at age 77, he still proves capable of carrying a heavy drama on his shoulders. Despite Woody’s antagonistic and stubborn attitude, Dern manages to inject real weakness into the figure’s frame, both through limping movements and a refusal to take full responsibility for his family’s troubles. It’s a turn that lends itself both gracefully to laughs and moments of introspective awe, Forte’s solid work on the fringes helping to eke out all the pathos possible. Forte is a former SNL goofball more renowned for work on comedies like “MacGruber” and “That’s My Boy”, but here accelerates into sterling dramatic gear, measuredly supporting Dern’s magnificent work without attempting to steal any thunder, It’s a slight, skilled and very generous example of the craft.

Much of the feature unfolds in Woody’s old stomping grounds, allowing Payne to cook a phenomenal community spirit into the production, trapping the whole experience in some sort of 70s wormhole. The film-maker bookends the feature in a more identifiably modern sphere, but the backwoods relatives, trashy boozers and scheming locals that populate “Nebraska” further cement its potential for reflection, rooting the narrative 30 years into the past. Of course the very catalyst for the story (the sweepstake, referred to as the “oldest trick in the book” by a bemused David) concocts a wistful agenda from the start, but the movie’s style and engaging dramatic nuances are the real reason “Nebraska” develops into such a captivating work of retrospection. Maybe it’s a love-letter to the evocative and tortured drama 1970s Hollywood became saturated with, or a throwback to Nelson’s Midwestern heritage, but either way the movie is deeply affecting and faultlessly illustrated.

The father/ son facet takes centre stage come the finish, but that’s justifiable given the contributions made by Dern and Forte. With its enchanting musical score and striking photographic aesthetic, “Nebraska” is a convincing reminiscence on the surface alone, but Nelson’s serene writing and the quality of performance underline it as one of 2013’s most accomplished and distinctive cinematic journeys. Fans of Alexander Payne need not fear, this is another meaningful addition to his triumphant back catalogue. [A]

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