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Movie review: 'Nebraska' offers a small-town American road trip movie

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Nebraska

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NEBRASKA-- 3 STARS

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With how dramatically our country has changed since 1950 in terms of technology, communication, and standard of living, it's not very difficult to make comparisons between past generations and now. We hear it from our parents and grandparents all the time. We endlessly hear about how hard their lives were compared to ours and how little they had to do, unlike the overstimulated and entertained kids of the last 30 years. It doesn't take much to bring one of these stories to a movie screen. Grab just about any American family and you've got enough quirks for two hours when woven together right.

The question becomes whether or not you can make a film about a Heartland American family interesting. This is especially the case when presented for $9 alongside the endless hours of reality television choices at our fingertips like Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo about similar small-town niche weirdos. To pull that off, you need to bring in some talent and strong story-telling. Greats directors have tried to downsize and examine "ordinary" American families and have failed. Just look at the dullness of 1950's Texas in Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life (one of my favorite reviews) or the disappointment of Always by Steven Spielberg. You could even slot Martin Scorsese's weak After Hours in this category as a smaller take on a smaller setting.

One writer and director who can handle a smaller setting filled with quirks is Alexander Payne. His resume of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants is filled with all sorts of close looks at small towns populated by tight-knit groups and families. His broadest effort was the Hawaiian-set The Descendants, which was my top film of 2011. His new film, Nebraska, is his smallest and most nuanced film to date. Shot in black-and-white on a micro-budget and populated by mostly unknown performers instead of Hollywood A-listers, the film strives to slow things down and give you something interesting to follow and compare with your own family's generational gaps. Nebraska is playing now at six Chicagoland locations.

Starting in Billings, Montana, we meet Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, a sad sack Korean vet who is walking along the side of a highway before a cop stops him. When questioned why he's out walking, Woody's story is that he's heading to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1,000,000 prize he believes he was promised by a flyer in the mail. His youngest grown son David (former Saturday Night Live veteran Will Forte) picks him up at the police station and tries to convince him of the scam he's being suckered to believe. Stuck on the couch everyday and belittled by his chatty wife Kate (June Squibb), Woody is undeterred in this quest and tries more escapes.

In an effort to spend some time with his dad and get out of town himself, David volunteers to drive Woody to Nebraska himself. This sets up a road trip movie passing through the Great Plains region that is speckled with little fun detours and an extended stop in Woody's old hometown in rural Nebraska. Woody is a man of few word and even fewer first-person stories, so David vicariously gets his bonding from the stories of others who've known Woody their whole lives. While staying with family there, the father and son dig up old relatives, old flames, and old scores that are all wrinkled in some way by the fake prospect of Woody becoming a millionaire.

What's getting Nebraska Oscar buzz is its performances. Seasoned relic Bruce Dern has been the lead contender for the Best Actor Academy Award since his surprising win at the Cannes Film Festival. Early in the minor awards season, he has added Best Actor honors from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, with more sure to come. At 77, he's that classic old Hollywood favorite that voters tend to root for, much like Christopher Plummer two years ago in Beginnners.

Dern gives a very nuanced performance that, for me, doesn't rise enough above nuance. Too often, he's overplaying his age and I can't call that compelling acting. When 80% of your dialogue is a grunt, a nod, or a confused huh, I need to be sold that a deeper character lies underneath past the quirks. Personally, I don't think that ever comes out with Woody's character. Not enough resonates to embolden the journey. Where there's supposed to be a repressed fire, we just find ashen cinders. Jack Nicholson did it better in About Schmidt and, in a supporting role, Robert Forster was entirely better with a similar part in The Descendants (Forster, coincidentally, was up for this role with Payne). To give the Oscar for Best Actor to Dern over Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave or Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club would be criminal at this point.

The characters that really show a worthy depth are behind Dern. Will Forte does a very good job shaking the MacGruber label and dialing down the slapstick entirely. You can argue he's the character more on a journey in Nebraska than Woody. June Squibb steals the show from both Forte and Dern as the no-nonsense family matriarch. She gives us the best lines, the best laughs, and the best context to walk us through this little American slice of heartland home cooking. Together, the three play off each other well and give us something to enjoy for the most part. Both of them are more Oscar-worthy than Dern.

Thanks to the "will-he-or-won't-he" build-up towards the possibility of this $1,000,000 prize not being a scam, director Alexander Payne gives us enough to keep our attention and earn some points. Too often, though, Nebraska can't get out of its own vacuum of small-town isolation. The movie treads very slowly and has as little to say in the grand scheme of things as its zero small talk senior family members on display. By going black-and-white and shooting with a gorgeous rural cinematography through the lens of Pheldon Papamichael (The Descendants, The Ides of March, 3:10 to Yuma), Payne has intentionally created a unique palette, but it's just not good enough in the story department to exceed his previous works and other rivals in this year's Oscar race.

Nebraska is certainly worth a watch for its solid performances, but no rush is required. If you want a better and more compelling small-town Americana movie to keep your attention and have more to say, mark Christmas on your calendars for August: Osage County, which I was lucky enough see early at this year's Chicago Film Festival, where it was on the undercard to Nebraska's spotlight as the festival centerpiece. That superior film squashes this little film in every possible way.

LESSON #1: DON'T TELL A MAN WHAT HE CAN'T DO-- Men, regardless of their age, are driven by their free will. They want what they can't or don't have. Hubris gets the best of them. They aren't good at taking orders once they reach adulthood. Men have been bred to be the authority and boss after being the subservient child they started as under their own father. Sons grow up to be their fathers because of this push to always do something and never settled for "can't."

LESSON #2: PARENTS BECOMING LIABILITIES TO THEIR CHILDREN-- With the advances in medical care and the growing billion-dollar industry of hospice care, we are seeing the overpopulating problem of our parents living to ages longer than their parents. There is a delicate age and ceiling for every senior citizen when they lose sense and function to take care of themselves and become a liability to their adult children. When you see Woody and Kate in action, you'll see two balls-and-chains that drown David and his brother at times.

LESSON #3: KNOWING THAT YOUR FAMILY HAD LIVES BEFORE YOU CAME AROUND-- Arguably, the most enlightening moments of Nebraska come from David learning more and more about his cold shoulder father and cantankerous mother and what they were like as kids and teens before they were married and had kids. Like David, we forget that our parents and grandparents were once kids and young adults too. They had adventures, grudges, secrets, friends and lovers before their spouses, successes, failures, and different hopes and dreams that we see of them now in their final years. Some of those are family legends we know while others are undiscovered.

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