NEBRASKA (2013, Alexander Payne)
Every once in a while Payne comes up with something that just nails it, then the rest of the time he gets stuck in middlebrow crowd-pleasing or low-hanging fruit. Like early on in NEBRASKA, a cop asks Bruce Dern (who is excellent in this) where he’s going, and where he came from. The vague thumb-pointing Dern does in response is at once existential, metaphorical, dismissive, and comical. I could have had a whole film of those moments. Then there’s the slow father-son bonding, like when at first it’s only Dern pissing on the side of the road and later on becomes both Dern and Forte pissing together; finally there’s the shot of them switching from driver to passenger seat in the middle of the road. Passing the torch, as it were.
Unfortunately, every time Payne’s film threatens to become artful like that (though he may go a little far when he makes sure to fit a headstone with his own name in a shot of the cemetery), it tosses in some bogus scene like June Squibb (whose performance here is terrible; no idea what everyone is raving about) hurling profanities at 11 in a desperate attempt to get the audience to laugh amidst the sadness. As for Forte, either he’s not a good actor (MACGRUBER made it hard to tell) or the role fails him — he takes turns yelling at people for not letting Dern’s character have the fantasy of money for a few days at the end of his life, and then immediately yelling at Dern for believing in the fantasy. His motivations and personality are both muddled and non-existent.
That said, clear away the garbage and there’s some greatness in here — especially in the portrait of the American Midwest as a microcosm for national economic depression, revealing people’s greed and selfishness, not to mention pipe dreams and faded memories. And although the line is cheap, all-too-blunt, and Hey I’m Writing A Line of Dialogue, the moment where Forte says “He just believes what people tell him” and the woman says “Oh, that’s too bad,” rings true when set against this backdrop of how gullibility and the phoniness of the American dream caused the very situation we find ourselves in. I just wish the film had found a way to unite the commentary about our financial crisis with its family-centered drama in a more nuanced way.