Nebraska (London Film Festival 2013)
Although The Descendants was nominated for several Oscars and won best screenplay, I shall forever remember it merely as “that thing with George Clooney in Hawaii”. Alexander Payne follows that disappointment with another one, continuing his descent (pun sort of intended) with Nebraska – I’m sure I’ll forever remember it merely as “that thing with black-and-white in Nebraska”.
Payne swaps Hawaiian sunshine for a cold road trip, journeying along a barren landscape from Montana to Nebraska, shot entirely without colour. The miserable sameness would suit its protagonists, a quarrelsome father and son, if it wasn’t for a script laden with sub-sitcom humour and hollow characters.
Woody (Bruce Dern), an elderly man, receives junk mail that claims he’s won a million dollar jackpot. He insists on taking the ticket himself to the Nebraska office, finding a reluctant companion in his son, David (Will Forte), who uses the doomed trip as an excuse for familial bonding.
Will Forte is an odd choice for lead, especially considering Payne’s last three male protagonists have been the enigmatic trio of George Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Jack Nicholson. Forte, however, is meek and passive, far away from the world of MacGruber and Saturday Night Live. He’s largely a foil for Dern’s grumpiness: short-tempered and stubborn, somewhat contradicting the unwise confidence in the fake lottery ticket.
Forte and Dern make the most of the script, even injecting moments of pathos (mostly from Dern’s tired, struggling figure), but are hampered by surprisingly weak humour. The road trip involves meeting several elderly relatives and strangers, leading to lengthy periods of “old people say the funniest things”. The mother is played by June Squibb, although it could easily be Betty White. Not even Bob Odenkirk, as David’s brother, could save proceedings.
I was admittedly in the minority as a screening full of regular laughter, perhaps supporting my initial sub-sitcom criticism – some of the dinner scenes aren’t too dissimilar from Everybody Loves Raymond. The pristine, black-and-white cinematography subsequently feels jarring, as if the dialogue-free scenes belong to a far better film. When the joking stops, I couldn’t find much in the central relationship that’s distinctive or felt genuine. Ultimately, the only moving factor is the car.
Nebraska is the gala screening of the London Film Festival’s “Journey” strand. More information can be found here.
United States of America
114 mins approx