Cannes Review: Alexander Payne goes home, but doesn't hit home, in 'Nebraska'
CANNES - "Nebraska," Alexander Payne's latest dramedy of American ennui and mislaid family relationships, opens with a vintage monochrome Paramount Pictures ident standing in for the flashier, CGI-enhanced mountain peak of recent years. It's a detail that may strike you either as a cute throwaway (hey, the film's in old-timey black-and-white!) or something rather more calculated. Like so many of his peers, Payne is deeply indebted to the American new wave of the 1970s, and with its Bogdanovich-esque lensing and revival of Bruce Dern, "Nebraska" cops to that debt pretty openly with this badge of cinematic classicism. That's all well and good, but is it stretching to detect a certain smug conservatism there too, a whiff of self-congratulation in its resistance to the new?
Probably. It'd be unfair, after all, to suggest that "Nebraska" romanticizes traditional heartland values: if anything, much of the melancholy in Payne's first onscreen visit to his home state since 2002's "About Schmidt" (which was also, coincidentally, his last entry at Cannes) hinges on its elderly inhabitants being as pettily venal today as they were 40 years ago. A certain shrugging sourness has been Payne's career-long signature, coloring films as wonderful as "Election" and as phony as "The Descendants" alike, but only in more recent works has that perspective been presented as humanism: how much empathy and affection you detect in "Nebraska"'s gallery of bitter old coots will affect how warmly you respond to it.
The film's lead character, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is certainly a mournfully sentimental creation: a plainspoken but increasingly addled former mechanic who's not so much raging against the dying of the light as giving it a hard stare. His crusty demeanor doesn't go far toward masking a vulnerable guilelessness that propels the entire narrative, as he falls for one of those junk-mail sweepstakes letters promising a prize of a million dollars to anyone naive enough to ignore the fine print. "He just believes stuff that people tell him," explains his son, David (Will Forte), to the company clerk finally charged with letting Woody down easily. "Oh, that's too bad," she replies brightly.
It's the most quintessentially Payne-ful exchange in a script that, in an unusual break from routine, the director didn't actually write himself -- decrying a contemporary world in which nothing should be taken at face value, and where those who persist in doing so wind up with only the puniest of rewards for their sincerity. The blandly conciliatory David, who humors his father's delusions to the extent of proposing a father-son road trip to collect Woody's non-existent winnings, is constructed as a prissy emblem of modern-day disingenuousness. His milquetoast politeness only worsens the farcical situation as Woody and David make a pit stop in their former hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, and word of Woody's false good fortune ripples through his opportunistic circle of old friends and extended family -- all of whom, questionably, are depicted as too dense to doubt his story. As tempers run high and old grudges and debts surface, it's David's unyielding, bullshit-averse mother Kate (June Squibb, ripely overplaying) who repeats rights the situation with her blunt candor; in Payne's world, you catch more flies with vinegar than with honey.