Saturday, March 1, 2014
Film Review: Nebraska (2013)
Director Alexander Payne's Nebraska is as cliche-riddled as the most generic buddy-cop action movie and three times as dull. The thin-as-dental-floss plot has old guy Woody trying to get from Montana to Nebraska to claim a Publisher's Clearing House-type prize of one million dollars that he thinks he's won (he hasn't). His son drives him to Nebraska, and along the way there's a family reunion, of sorts, and, inevitably, a tepid father-son reconciliation moment at the very end. All the road movie and father-son relationship tropes are on full display: bickering; surprise revelations about dad's past; quirky characters; scenic detours along the way; and a settling of accounts with old enemies. And just to make sure all the cliche boxes are ticked, Nebraska gives us characters who are uniformly laconic, terse, and unemotional to the point of being catatonic. This, of course, is how Hollywood has traditionally viewed people who live in the "flyover states" and have the kind of jobs that involve manual labour and getting paid by the hour; and so in Nebraska the characters are essentially dead-eyed zombies, only instead of an appetite for brains they seek meatloaf. In short, what we have here are cartoonish caricatures, not characters. Payne wants us to snicker at most every character in his film; in fact, it's not going too far to say that he's actually showing contempt for them.
There isn't one moment or performance that rescues this film from total crapdom. The pace is lethargic, the humour is cheap and obvious, and the acting is all over the place in terms of tone. The key roles are done with professional polish, but the supporting characters give the impression they've been pulled in off the street. The disconnect in style between the two groups of actors is very jarring. Finally, why the hell is Bruce Dern up for a best actor Oscar? Is he nominated in a special category for Best Actors Who We All Thought Were Dead But It Turns Out They Aren't? All he does for most of the film is stare vacantly into the middle distance and say "What?" in a querulous voice whenever he's spoken to. Add this film to the long list of Hollywood products that see working class and lower-middle-class characters as something between buffoons and ciphers.