Greetings again from the darkness. Director Alexander Payne has proved yet again that he has a remarkable eye for characters, and no need to bury those characters deep in plot. About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants provided us with characters we could laugh with, cry with and feel with. His latest is his first film which he did not write, but it’s clear that he and screenwriter Bob Nelson are similar type people watchers.
What you notice immediately is that this film and its characters move at their own pace. There is no rushing or urgency. They do things and say things in due time. Or not. What you also notice is that the camera does the same thing. Filmed in stark black and white, the camera is exceedingly quiet and still … just like the characters and landscape. We can thank Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants. Even the score is a bit offbeat. The blending of trumpet and guitar is rare, yet seems to fit just right.
Bruce Dern is 77 years old and in his sixth decade of acting. While I have liked him quite often – and really liked him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – this may be his best performance and best role yet. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic, and hard of hearing, and crotchety, and isolated. More seriously, he seems to be in the early stages of dementia given his insistence on walking to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” from a mass marketing mailing similar to Publishers Clearing House. With minimal dialogue, we “get” Woody. That’s thanks to Dern’s physical performance and ability to emote through simple gestures. We feel his quiet desperation in the search for meaning in a life that is slipping away. He just wants to be somebody before the end.
The delivery mechanism is a road trip shared by Woody and his very patient son David (Will Forte). We sense David looks at the trip as an opportunity to connect for the first time with his dad, and maybe even get some life questions answered along the way. On the trip, other family members join in, including Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Woody’s colorful wife Kate (June Squibb). The trip takes them to Woody’s hometown where they cross paths with other family and old friends.
Woody’s insistence that he is about to be a millionaire brings out the “true self” in those whose paths they cross. Many of his old friends are truly happy for him and wish him nothing but the best. Others aren’t so kind. True colors can be hard to watch, especially as shown by Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and other family members who are just after “their fair share” of the loot. The movie excels in these moments … watching a fiery Kate put these vultures in their place, while defending the husband she has spent the whole time badgering is priceless.
Ms. Squibb delivers the film’s funniest lines, but she also gives a depth to Kate that adds the level of realism. Will Forte is surprisingly effective given his “Saturday Night Live” background, but we never lose sight of Bruce Dern (and his hair). The characters we see are grounded rural midwesterners who live their life from day to day, depending heavily on family and friends. Their interpersonal skills are quite different than what is found in metropolitan areas, and those born and raised in heavily populated areas may struggle to relate.
The film should garner Oscar nomination consideration in multiple categories, and Mr. Dern is probably a shoe-in for a Best Actor nom. So slow down and share this trip from Montana to Nebraska … while I can’t promise a prize of one million dollars, you will definitely be rewarded.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character driven dramatic comedies based on people you might know (if you know people in the rural midwest)
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your sense of humor is more likely to parallel that of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell than Sideways or About Schmidt.
watch the trailer: