I’m starting to believe the people who say 2013 is one of the great years for movies. Having recently piled “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Nebraska” on top of the long list of other last year releases viewed, I’m starting to see this as a crop that just keeps yielding.
I dragged my feet about “Nebraska,” although I’m hard pressed to say why. (I have a philistine’s resistance to black and white movies. So often, they represent some auteur’s attempt to make a new artistic statement I don’t care about or to imitate some other beloved auteur. Hence, “8 1/2” begat “Stardust Memories,” which is probably a better movie than I think it is. At the time, it annoyed me.)
For the first 20 minutes or more, I thought I had probably been right about “Nebraska.” I’m an Alexander Payne fan, but I considered “The Descendants” a failure. And I’m 59, getting ready to board that boat into old age. Watching Bruce Dern (as Woody Grant) stagger around and humiliate himself for a couple of hours …well, couldn’t I just download Peggy Lee singing “Is That All there Is?” and play it over and over? And Payne’s vision of the Great Plains and its little towns full of debilitated working class people is ….bleak.
But then, hand on the petcock, Payne starts to bleed a muted warmth into these scenes. The performance of Will Forte as Woody’s son David is a key to this, and the dynamic between old father and fortyish son gets stripped right down to its very truthful skeleton. The last movie I can remember that tackled this subject was “Nothing In Common” with Hanks and Gleason in 1986. This is like an x-ray of that movie. And just when you think the Grant men (and the movie itself) are incapable of joy, Payne opens the valve a little more, so that the home stretch is a celebration. An odd, stinting, anti-inveigling one, yes. But a celebration.
“Nebraska” is a fabulous argument for the “restore the Oscar for casting directors” crowd. (I am in intimate communication with a face in that crowd.) Every little bitty role is immaculately filled, and the larger choices of Forte and, as his brother, Bob Odenkirk — both of whom made their bones in sketch comedy — for these layered roles were inspired. And Stacy Keach! Good Lord.
And while we’re talking of awards that don’t exist, somebody should give a prize for Best Performance in a Bit Part. Seven minutes or less of screen time. I nominate an actor named Angela McEwan, who is Peggy, the woman who carried a torch for Woody in the sweet days of youth. McEwan, one short scene, sips from a cup of honey and hemlock and lets it roll around on her tongue in a way that adds a whole extra dimension to the narrative. And then — in keeping with one of Payne’s themes: that everybody is a hit man, socially and/or emotionally — this lovely and deferential older woman whips a Luger out from under her cardigan and blows a hole in the paper target of David’s dragon-breathed mom Kate. Really, not since “Three Days of the Condor” have so many innocuous-looking people turned out to be snipers.
Let me close with the scene that sticks closest to me. Woody and his family trek back to the ramshackle farmhouse of his boyhood. He walks into his parents’ old bedroom and recalls that he’d get whipped for walking in there, back in those days. And then — with Dern doing one of his many deft toggles from addressing the people around him to talking to himself — he says, “I guess nobody’s going to whip me now.” So much is said in the moment; but for me it captured the way people start clearing out. Your recording angels and the masters of your universe. One day, they’re all gone, and you miss them all, even the ones who meted out tough justice. And now, you wonder if anybody cares enough about your case to hear it — which is both liberating and disorienting.