“Two goddamn days … from Billings?”
I didn’t like About Schmidt. I remember very little about why or the film itself, but I do remember that. It should therefore be no surprise I didn’t necessarily love director Alexander Payne‘s latest Nebraska either since in my estimation they’re very similar works. He was actually approached with Bob Nelson‘s screenplay while filming the Jack Nicholson starrer, agreeing to helm it as long as he could put distance behind his next obligation—Sideways—so as not to make two road movies in a row. Nine years later and hot off Oscar success from The Descendants, the dryly-comic drama hit screens with rave reviews. I liked it; it’s cute, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at the same time. But by the end of its bleakly hopeful black and white fairy tale, I couldn’t exactly join the universal love.
Themes of aging and the reversal of our dynamic with our parents later on in life so that child becomes caretaker are apparent and well fleshed-out with a side of regret and longing for not just the past, but a reality that sadly never quite panned out as planned. Such sentiments can be used for all involved—save successful son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) who seems to have hit the lottery as far as good luck goes. David (Will Forte) is at a crossroads with his live-in girlfriend who just moved out, stuck at a job without much wiggle room for promotion, and all but tired of his bickering folks’ shenanigans. What he doesn’t realize, though, is that his dad Woody’s (Bruce Dern) plight is for all intents and purposes identical if not fully advanced towards futility.
Because Woody has already lived what we assume was the life he wanted, a disconnect forms between he and David that easily misconstrues his current fantasy to be a result of dementia and/or confusion. This is exacerbated by David knowing very little about his father’s past thanks to the Grant family men’s penchant for silence above sharing—a truth soon rectified once their adventure from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska that’s catalyzed by a Publisher’s Clearing House-esque letter saying Woody “may” have won a million dollars sees them stopping at his old hometown of Hawthorne for a weekend. It’s here David realizes his dad’s gullibility for fortune may not be a product of old age, but rather an intrinsic character trait—one that made him a popular friend and also an easy target with whom to take advantage.
This relationship’s complexities are one of the film’s main cruxes, simultaneously revealing to the audience and David what is actually happening inside his father’s mind. The early hypothesis points to the man’s long history of alcoholism ravaging what was left of coherency, an assumption that breeds his son’s decision to placate him out of pity more than love. David knows and understands what it’s like to spin his wheels and covet even the tiniest of wins, so he agrees to drive the old man to Lincoln if only to ensure he doesn’t receive another phone call at work from the police saying Woody had tried the journey on foot again. Even though he knows it will end in disappointment, at least the act itself will give his father purpose—something he’s obviously been missing for way too long.
It’s a selfless act on David’s part despite him believing it was more to get away from Billings himself, one that ultimately brings him closer to this man he never thought cared enough for him to bother trying. Add in sharp and uncensored matriarch Kate (June Squibb) and you can see how the Grant marriage’s combination of his stoicism and her unrelentingly gossipy loquaciousness would keep anyone away. But while it’s introduced as comic relief for David to shake his head, watching them in Hawthorne conjures something else. Woody complains about Kate’s nagging bitchiness, but we soon realize she saved him when she took him away. And watching home’s fabricated kindness turn the knife in his back once more, it’s no wonder he so desperately needed to prove he was worth something even if it was a sham.
Knowing all this and enjoying the direction Nelson and Payne take us to understand it only makes my indifference more disappointing. Admittedly I think my own disconnect lies in the director’s decision to paint it all with a sheen of frivolity from its piano score to its blatant camera set-ups solely constructed for a laugh. The transitions are surprisingly blunt as new scenes arrive with a hitch as though the actors were waiting for Payne to yell action before moving—a stilted, fairy tale-esque convention made all the worse by its supporting players being non-actors hoping to instill a level of authenticity. Their machinations coupled by the aesthetic unfortunately did the opposite, however, perpetually reminding me how this was a movie staged specifically for the story beats manipulating us to feel its proposed emotions.
It all just added to the already slow pacing and caused me to wonder whether thirty minutes of redundancy could have been excised without loss of comprehension. Because the film is one with merit and a slew of performances that should be rewarded with nominations for Dern and Squibb—I just can’t get past the execution turning what could have been a masterpiece into something that will put a smile on your face while you yearn for more. Rance Howard‘s Uncle Ray and Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll‘s cousins are memorably hilarious in their subtlety; Forte and quasi-villain Stacy Keach are effectively solid; and the cinematography is gorgeous, but enjoying these aspects became somewhat of an afterthought as the story dragged forward. Even so, it’s still worth seeing for Dern’s and Squibb’s evolution and delivery alone. I just expected more.
Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: November 15th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Director(s): Alexander Payne
Writer(s): Bob Nelson