The new Bob Nelson (writer)/Alexander Payne (director) movie Nebraska is shot in Last Picture Show black and white, and has the same feeling of a passing way of life as that earlier film. The rich cinematography of Phedon Papamichael shows a bleak world with little future. The economy is bad; it’s approaching winter and everyone is smothered in parkas and down jackets; the foliage has fallen and all the crops have been gathered; and Woody Grant (a play on Grant Wood anybody? Anybody?), the centerpiece of this Midwestern tragicomedy, fully embodies all these symbols of present day America. Woody, let us say, is not aging in a particularly graceful way; he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and easily gets confused, spending most of his time trying to get to Lincoln, NE in order to collect a million dollars in a magazine peddling scam that he thinks is genuine.
Nebraska is an odd duck of a movie when it comes to structure. It’s a dysfunctional family drama in which the dysfunction is kept to a minimum (no Long Day’s Journey… or August: Osage County here). In fact, most of the time it feels as if no members of the family can even get up enough energy to be dysfunctional (the scenes of brothers mesmerized by the TV are a highlight of the movie). It’s a road picture in which the characters spend relatively little time on the road, stopping before they even get started. And it’s one of those comedies in which someone thinks he’s come into a fortune and risks humiliation when the truth comes out, but Preston Sturgess it’s not.
In fact, I would normally categorize the movie as a right mess, a story the author didn’t quite know what to do with and a plot that was being pulled in all sorts of conflicting directions. That is, I would say it if it didn’t all come together and work so wonderfully well. Nebraska is a pretty terrific film when it comes down to it; a movie of rich characterizations and deeply felt emotions. A movie so funny you want to cry and a movie so despairing you want to laugh.
Bruce Dern plays Woody with grizzled visage; angry, bloodshot eyes; and perpetual scowl on a chin that never gets shaved. Dern has been around for some time, of course, but he has never quite managed to connect with the audience as well as many of his contemporaries. He’s never not worked, but he never quite had the career he deserved, perhaps. There’s something about his squeaky voice and a face in which the parts don’t quite seem to fit that maybe got in his way. But here he delivers, giving the performance of his career in the role of his career.
Woody is one of those roles where you think you know everything about him from the moment you lay eyes on him. But little drips and drabs of his past come leaking out until you find yourself constantly reevaluating everything you thought you knew. It never really makes him any more likable; he’s still the same old alcoholic cum emotionless bastard he always was, but you realize he has a right to his dignity, even if that dignity lies at the bottom of a beer bottle (he has one marvelous moment where he defends his right to be drink his liver into an early grave, and you find yourself coming down on his side).
Dern is matched scene for scene by June Squibb as his wife. Here we have what may be one of the most enjoyable Xanthippe’s on film (she played a similar role in About Schmidt, but her long suffering wife here is richer and deeper). From the time she comes out the back screen door of her house in her old lady dress and knee high nylons, crying to the heavens and asking if she is the only one with any sanity left in the family, she’s a life force not to be denied, but a life force she has little use for. Her time has passed, much like Woody’s has. And like Dern, it’s the performance of a career in the role of a career.
The supporting cast is filled out with two types: professionals and neo-realistic locals. It’s easy to tell the difference since there’s a huge difference in talent. Many people prefer the non-actors to the actors in movies like this (they like the breath of fresh air such amateurs can bring to a situation). But I have to be honest; with a few exceptions, I’ve always felt that they tended to take a lot of the steam out of the proceedings since their “naturalness” seems so out of place and stylistically inconsistent (they’re so obvious, all they do for me is call attention to themselves). And here it’s no different. But they don’t harm the movie either.
But there are some very nice touches from Will Forte, out of character in a dramatic part. Bob Odenkirk plays his brother and I’d say he was also out of character, except that his role in Breaking Bad proved his range was much wider than people might have originally thought. And Stacy Keach old pros the screen as a Woody’s former partner, a bully with feet of clay.
I’m not sure I can say there’s a ton of originality here. The relationships are familiar and the sentimental ending may feel a bit formulaic (I always felt that Payne had gone a bit soft since the early days of Citizen Ruth and Election). But everyone works so hard, and there’s so much true feeling here, that little of that matters.
Whenever I tell someone I went to see The German Doctor, which is the Argentinean entry in the foreign language film category at the Oscars, the first thing they ask is, “Is it about Mengele”? So I guess it’s safe to say there are no real surprises in the movie. You pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into when you purchase your popcorn.
The basic outline of the story is about a family that reopens a hotel and a mysterious German doctor comes to stay with them not long after the end of World War II. He slowly ingratiates himself into their life and secretly experiments on them under the pretense of giving them the latest, up to date medical care. Now, you would think that with an idea like this, how could you possibly go wrong? But I have to say, the whole thing moves at a snail’s pace with little to no tension or forward momentum, up until the last few minutes when writer/director Lucia Peunzo tries to throw in a little Hitchockian suspense and chase scenes at the climax. But it’s too little too late as far as I’m concerned. To be ruthlessly honest, The German Doctor is a bit of a bore (and not just the movie; the character is played by Alex Brendemuhl, and he doesn’t bring a lot of excitement to the role).
It’s not that the whole movie is devoid of interest. The strongest and most involving parts of the story revolve around the ex-pat Germans who have formed their own bars, social circles, schools and neo-Nazi movement. But in the end, the whole movie feels like one of those ideas that is so great (and it is, it is a first rate idea, one of the more enticing ones I’ve heard in a while), you just had to make the film, but then once you get going, you realize that you didn’t really know what to do with it in the first place. Because of this, the movie wobbles uncertainly between a coming of age film and a mad doctor thriller. Perhaps the saddest aspect of it is that it makes The Boys from Brazil and Gregory Peck’s performance look like a classic, rather than camp.