Movie Reviews - 2013 postsWednesday December 18, 2013
Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie ruined by flashbacks.
Could it have been saved? I don’t know. I don’t know if the foregrounding story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) refusing to sign over the copyright of her great character Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), then finally acquiescing, allowing the 1964 musical to be made (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), and to gross ($102 million, $629 million adjusted), and to win (five Academy Awards, including best actress), I don’t know if this story could have been salvaged. But it’s so intercut with the other one, the story of P.L Travers’ childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia—the flashbacks that Explain All—that it has no chance. It’s the cocaine cut with baking powder. It’s the Julia cut with Julie.
“Mr. Banks” was probably a goner anyway. A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney? Talk about synergy. But at least I found the foregrounded story vaguely interesting. The other one? In Australia? Kill me now.
He’s a drinker, see?
For a while, Walt Disney’s name goes unmentioned. It’s just he. It’s just assumed. I’d say it’s like the unutterable name of God but it’s more like the unnecessary name of God. It is he who rules beneficently over all.
The she is often assumed, too. Maybe they should have gone on assuming. Because once they start using definite names, chaos ensues. Walt Disney insists on being called “Walt” but Mrs. Travers insists on calling him “Mr. Disney.” She wants “Mrs. Travers” but Walt calls her Pamela, or worse, Pam. The chauffer (Paul Giamatti) calls her “Mrs.” while she doesn’t even know his name until the third act. It’s all very British vs. American, uptight vs. loosey-goosey, and should’ve been funnier than it is.
It’s not even until the third act that Walt discovers P.L. Travers’ real name isn’t Travers; it’s Goff. “Travers” was her father’s name. This is news to him but not to us—we’ve been getting the Goff story from the beginning—but it raises questions. You’d think with all of Disney’s money and power he would’ve been able to figure this out. Like 20 years before. But I guess we all need a third-act reveal. Even when it’s not very revealing.
How many flashbacks to Australia circa 1906-07 do we get in this movie? They just keep coming. And in chronological order, too. So nice when memory works that way.
At first they’re idyllic. A young girl (Annie Rose Buckley), her handsome father (Colin Farrell), the great, lazy outdoors (dry grass next to babbling brooks). Then they move, from Maryborough, Australia to the end of the line: Allora. He has a job as a bank manager. But, uh oh, the bottle appears. He’s a charmer, yes, but a drinker, see. We get several examples of his humiliation, and hers. The girl, Ginty, actually aids and abets, and he winds up in bed, coughing blood. From drinking? No, influenza. So why are we focusing on the drinking? For the shame of it, I guess. For the dull storyline of it.
Ah, but a magical figure appears: a strict nanny who will save all (Rachel Griffiths). Except she doesn’t. The father dies as the girl, Ginty, brings him pears. That’s why, see, Mrs. Travers hates pears. That’s why Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers didn’t create her to save the children; she did it to save the father. Her father.
She’s a curmudgeon, see?
Anyway, all of these godawful flashbacks help explain why, in the present day, 1961, P.L. Travers is so persnickety, so adamant, so ready to sabotage an absolutely lovely musical that just wants to make everyone ever so heppy. It’s all about her and her effed-up past, when the real dilemma is what he does with British children’s classics. The fluff they become.
We get a flash of this. In her hotel suite in LA, she finds great heaps of stuffed animals based on Disney characters, along with fruit baskets that contain—no!—pears, which she promptly tosses several stories down into the hotel pool. Then she picks up a big stuffed version of Winnie the Pooh and sighs. “Poor A.A. Milne.” She should have kept going. Peter Pan. “Poor J.M. Barrie.” Then her own creation: “Poor me.”
At this point, she’s allowed Disney only an option on the property, so she has the right of first refusal. And second. And third. She takes them all. She doesn’t want a cartoon. She doesn’t want animation of any sort. She doesn’t want the color red in the movie. “Mary Poppins is not for sale!” she tells him. “I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.” Hanks plays Disney as oblivious. How could anyone not like what I do? What I’ve made? It’s the happiest place on Earth! She’s the grumpiest person on Earth in the Happiest Place on Earth. There should’ve been more humor to mine from this as well.
Instead, we veer wildly. Travers goes from totally uncompromising to totally compromised (by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” of all songs) to storming back to England when she discovers there will be animated penguins, forcing Uncle Walt to actually do research on her, and figure out about her father, and fly to England to not only save the day but commiserate. He tells her his own sad tale—of the harsh winters of turn-of-the century Kansas City, Mo., and of his father’s belt—which is why he does what he does. See? They’re doing the same thing. It’s papering over the pain. It’s making the story come out right. It’s the Disney version. Then he holds onto her hands: Let him make the Disney version of her story, so that, together, they can save Mr. Banks.
Which is what happens.
Interestingly, in the epilogue, at the world premiere of “Mary Poppins,” Uncle Walt is a bit distant from P.L. He doesn’t even invite her to the premiere. (Apparently true.) But she shows, and she cries, and she approves. (Apparently untrue.) For her father is saved onscreen for all time. Because that’s what movies do. They give us the pretty little lies we all crave.
Except P.L. Travers didn’t crave it. She hated it. She hated the Disney version.
Consider “Saving Mr. Banks” the ultimate revenge of Disney Corp. P.L. Travers was a pain in the ass, refusing, for a time, to allow Mary Poppins to be turned into one of Disney’s silly creations. So they waited. And waited. And waited. And then they did the same to her.
Movie Review: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)
Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”) is well-named. Sure, it’s episodic and goes on a bit long (148 minutes), and I kept seeing endings before the ending. Oh, it’s going to end here. Then it didn’t. Or here. No. But its ending was a good ending, probably better than the other endings I felt. Above all, it’s beautiful to look at and to contemplate. It’s pungent in its beauty.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), 65, wise in his age, bemused in his stance, idle with his time, is on a sort of search. He’s not searching for meaning so much as a reason to keep going. At one point he says, “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and this is just before he disappears rather than look at the naked photos of a beautiful woman, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), he just slept with. So: high standards. At another point he sees a giraffe, a beautiful giraffe staring down from on high and surrounded by a half-circle of ancient Roman columns; and the two, Jep and the giraffe, stare at each other until Jep’s magician-friend arrives and explains the giraffe. It’s part of his act. He makes it disappear. And Jep leans close and asks, “Can you make me disappear?” That’s when we realize the extent of Jep’s ennui. He shows the world a bemused face, but inside, particularly in the morning light after another party, he’s desperate. His magician-friend has to tell him that if he could make people disappear he wouldn’t be where he was. “It’s just a trick,” he says.
A life in tatters
On the surface, Jep has little to complain about. He’s a spry 65, still living the sweet life, la dolce vita, in modern-day Rome, with friends, parties, work, women, and a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking the Colosseum. I’m talking the fucking Colosseum. He came to Rome at 26 and got sucked into the whirl of the high life, and he didn’t just want to be part of it; he wanted to be its king. He wrote a slim novel, acclaimed, called “The Human Apparatus,” and has been living off of that, and a few writing gigs and interviews for major magazines, ever since. He wants to write more but wine, women and parties keep getting in the way.
Sound familiar? It’s basically the dilemma of Marcello Rubini, Marcello Mastroianni’s character in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Rubini kept getting sucked into la dolce vita, which wasn’t (dolce), while Jep keeps searching for la grand bellezza, which, ultimately, is (bello).
We get disconnected, sometimes absurd scenes a la Fellini. Jep watches a performance artist, naked but for a diaphanous hijab, run into an ancient stone structure, then declare, to the outdoor audience, “I don’t love you!” to applause. Turns out he’s interviewing her for his magazine and with a smile refuses to accept any of her “artistic” responses. He tries to get to know his neighbor, who refuses to speak, and hosts parties on his balcony, to friends who refuse to shut up. He gets into it with one friend, a beautiful woman and Communist Party member named Stefania (Galatea Ranzi). She brags about all she does, the children she’s raised, the 11 books she’s written, and refuses to see the lies she lives with every day. She demands he gives examples. He does, to the discomfort of everyone else, and with that same sad smile on his face. Then he says this:
Stefania, mother and woman, you’re 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?
That’s not a bad end philosophy but we’re still near the beginning of the movie. So what can our man learn?
This? The great love of his life, Elisa, seen in flashback (Anna Luisa Capasa), dies, and her husband of 35 years comes to Jep in tears, telling him “She always loved you.” He’d cracked her diary and read her thoughts and he barely comes up in them. “Thirty five years and I’m mentioned as a ‘good companion,’” he says. Jep tries to comfort him, though he’s secretly thrilled, though later in the movie it’s Jep who wants answers. Elisa, long ago, left him so he wants to know why she did this if she loved him, and he asks if he can read that diary. But by this point it’s been burned. By this point the widower is now with another woman, and happy again, and life continues.
Jep gets involved with a woman, Ramona, the daughter of an old friend. She thinks he’s after sex but he’s more interested in the her of her, and maybe in the distraction of it all. The sex comes later. So does death.
There are great lines throughout. Stefania calls him a misogynist, and he replies that he’s a misanthrope not a misogynist—a line I swear I’ve used in the past. Much later they’re dancing at an outdoor function and they have this exchange—lines which I wish I’d used in the past:
Jep: Have we ever slept together?
Stefania: Of course not.
Jep: That’s a big mistake. We must make amends immediately.
Why doesn’t the companion of Jep’s dwarf publisher ever speak? “Because he listens.” Why are the trains, the conga lines, at Jep’s parties the best? “Because they go nowhere.” For a movie I feared would not be about character or dialogue, this one has great examples of both.
Your earlier, funnier movies
Probably the key question of the movie is this: Why did Jep never write a second novel? Everyone wants to know. Even a future saint.
Near the end, Jep is hosting Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), a 103-year-old nun who has worked her whole life with the poor. She has handlers, a PR man who answers questions, so for a time we don’t even know if this husk of a person, this toothless, wrinkled woman, can speak. But finally she does. And one of the first things she says is: “Why did you never write a second novel?” It’s like the running gag of “your earlier, funnier movies” in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” which is itself a takeoff on Guido’s “next movie” in Fellini’s “8 ½.” Homage upon homage.
And it’s here that Jep finally gives an answer. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he says, smiling his sad smile. “But ... I didn’t find it.” It’s around this time that Sister Maria gives her own answer to an oft-asked question. The rumor is that she eats only roots. People want to know why. So she tells Jep. “Do you know why I only eat roots? Because roots are important.”
Is this her advice about finding the great beauty? Does this help him, in the end, find the great beauty? By the end, he’s writing a novel anyway. We get its beginning in a voiceover. “So let the novel begin,” he says. “After all, it’s just a trick.”
“The Great Beauty” is a movie I could see again, and not just because it’s beautiful but because I’m curious about all that I missed amid its swirl. Jep, like Marcello before him, straddles the profane and the sacred, the great pointlessness and the great beauty. One assumes the two are inexorably intertwined; that if you are lucky enough, you suffer through one to get to the other. But that’s too neat, too definite. “The Great Beauty” is more open-ended. It opens its arms wide and lets you enter.
Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
It’s the ending.
I’d heard it was the way the Coens treated him. They were like Old Testament gods toying with their creation again, making sure nothing went his way again, and people were, I heard, objecting. But that’s not the problem with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The problem is the ending. It just ends. Au revoir.
It ends where it begins, but is it ending where it began—i.e., with the same scene— or is it merely similar to the opening scene, as waking up at the Gorfeins’ place at the end (purring kitty, sticking head sideways out doorway) is similar to waking up in the beginning? It’s part of the nightmarish cyclical nature of the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), and of all of our lives, really. He and we are trapped in it and we’re not allowed out. Except one way.
We get Bob more prominent in the end, a young Bob Dylan coming onto the Gaslight Cafe stage with a bit of a song that sounds like Llewyn’s, or like traditional folk songs anyway (the whole “fare the well” thing), which is the final nail in the coffin for this Dave Van Ronk-alike. The Coens own up to that, by the way: the Van Ronk comparison. Even the album names and covers match. But it stops there. Van Ronk ruled. He was the Mayor of MacDougal Street, and beloved. Llewyn is compressed, bitter, and so very very tired. He is the talent doomed to never be known. He is the modern ...
Let me back up for a second.
There are some great line readings in the movie, particularly from Carey Mulligan as Jean, part of the folksinging husband/wife duo Jim and Jean (Jim = Justin Timberlake), but my favorite may be from F. Murray Abraham, who plays Bud Grossman, AKA Albert Grossman, the man who managed Bob Dylan, and who created Peter, Paul and Mary. The great odyssey in the movie, the attempt to get out, and up, rather than out and down, which is what Llewyn’s former singing partner does (off the George Washington Bridge), is Llewyn’s trip to Chicago to play for Bud at the Gate of Horn. It’s nightmarish getting there, sometimes even hellish, but he does it. And there’s this devilish figure waiting for him at the end.
Llewyn has a copy of his album with him, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but Bud, rather than listen to the record, wants to hear him live. “You’re here, play me something.” Pause. “Play me something from inside Llewyn Davis.” That’s it. It’s perfect. It has just the right soupçon of condescension about Llewyn’s album title and maybe his talent. F. Murray is so good in such a small part, and you’re so grateful to be seeing him onscreen again, that you might not make the connection immediately. I didn’t. It wasn’t until we were walking back to the car, Patricia and I, talking over the movie, and I was thinking that Llewyn Davis was the talent destined to be unknown, the talent usurped by the greater talent, Bob Dylan, making him ... of course! ... the modern Salieri, the man usurped by Mozart in “Amadeus,” and who was played by, of course, F. Murray Abraham.
Of course Llewyn isn’t even Salieri. Salieri was hugely successful in his time, beloved by kings, but he also recognized the greater talent in Mozart. Llewyn gets nowhere. And does he even recognize the greater talent in Dylan? We don’t know. He listens for a few seconds and then leaves to get beat up in the alleyway for past crimes.
At the Gate of Horn audition, Llewyn plays a beautiful ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane,” and plays it well, and there’s a pause. Then Grossman says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Then he talks up Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), the too-innocent, cereal-slurping, folk-singing soldier stationed at Fort Dix, who, Grossman says, “connects with people.” Meaning Llewyn doesn’t. But Grossman gives him a way out. How is he with harmonies? Does he want to be part of a group he’s putting together? This will be Peter, Paul and Mary, one assumes, and Llewyn could’ve been Paul in that configuration, but he says no. He’s a solo act. It’s his way or the highway so it’s the highway. CUT TO: Llewyn struggling comically forward in the snow against the bitter Chicago wind.
Maybe that should’ve been the end: rejected by Salieri. But the Coens needed Llewyn to return to New York and get trapped in the bottle again.
Please Mssrs. Coens
I’ll say this: Not many filmmakers do place better than the Coens, whether it’s Florida in the 1930s, Minneapolis in 1967, or Greenwich Village in 1961. The streets Llewyn walks down all seem like the street Dylan walks down with Suze Rotolo on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
They get all the little details right: the caricatures of Llewyn’s agent, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), that he has framed on his walls, along with the framed copy of SING OUT! magazine, the folk music staple. Even the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), the ultra-liberal, upper west side couple who let Llewyn stay there, are perfect. Their guests, too, Marty Green and Janet Fung, who rename themselves the Greenfungs, not to mention the humorless bearded music historian Joe Flom (Bradley Mott). I’m curious, though, why the Coens named him thus, after the famous M&A attorney. And why name Llewyn’s former singing partner, the one who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, Mike Timlin? What is it with the Coens using other people’s names? We got Ron Meshbesher in “A Serious Man” and Al Milgrom here. Is it homage? Do they like funny sounding names?
Should we worry about the Old Testament quality to the Coens? They tend to punish all of their creations (it’s called a story) but a few are allowed happy endings: Herbert and Ed McDunnough, Jeff Lebowski, Ulysses Everett McGill. Most are not: Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis. What do these last have in common? Too much pride and prickliness. And Jewishness. The Coens are like Bernard Malamud this way: tougher on their own.
One of the oddities of the trailer is that everyone rails against Llewyn, particularly Jean, calling him an asshole (in another great line reading), but he never does anything really assholish in the trailer; he’s simply put-upon. But in the movie he is an asshole: he sleeps with Jean, explodes at the Gorfeins, gets drunk and yells obscenities at a kindly old woman playing a harp at the Gaslight because he’s mad at someone else. He’s got that prickly, prideful solitariness.
Does his need to be alone relate to the death of his former partner? The Timlin tragedy just hangs in the background. It’s a dull ache in Llewyn’s side that never goes away but is never explained. Same with the 2-year-old in Akron. Same with Jean. Most of Llewyn’s crimes are in the past. When we catch up with him he’s about to be punished.
Hang me, oh hang me
“Llewyn Davis” is also a movie about music, and the music, produced by T. Bone Burnett, is exceptional. The Coens give us entire songs. They hold on the performer, singing, and Oscar Isaac can sing.
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn sings in the beginning, and for the rest of the movie the Coens come close to doing it. Do Llewyn’s travails make him a better performer? That would be the easy way out of the story. That’s what most Hollywood movies would do. Llewyn is on this odyssey, often with Ulysses the cat, and he comes back a wiser man, and that wisdom leads to success. That’s the lie Hollywood often tells us, because it’s the lie we often tell ourselves, because otherwise why all this? Why travails, and pain, and sorrow, if it doesn’t lead to something? But here Llewyn’s travails lead to Dylan’s success.
I think I’ve actually written myself into liking “Inside Llewyn Davis." I want to see it again. The Coens often do this to me. The movie feels like an answer, and I’m just missing the answer, and maybe if I see it again I’ll find it. But I know I won’t. The Coens are masters at giving us the answer of the non-answer. This is another one.
Movie Review: Spring Breakers (2013)
It takes a particular kind of talent to make tits and ass this boring, but apparently writer-director Harmony Korine, who gave us the powerful “Kids” in 1995, is that kind of talent.
“Spring Breakers” is an arthouse version of an exploitation flick. That almost makes it sound interesting but “Spring Breakers” is not. It’s dull, atmospheric, repetitive. It’s about four college girls—three rowdy blondes and one Christian brunette, Faith (Selena Gomez)—who do what they can to go from wherever they are to St. Petersburg, Fla., for spring break. In a way it’s about the bastard children of Britney Spears and George W. Bush, the ones who grew up watching her videos and hearing snippets of his speeches, and drew all the appropriate lessons about looks and smarts.
It’s our past come back to haunt us, y’all.
The unreal real thing
What do the girls do in St. Pete? Ride scooters, go to the beach, party hardy. There’s beer bongs and dancing and not much dialogue. It’s hypnotic and dreamlike. They need this, these girls. They need to get away. From studying. About history and shit. An early good scene shows two of them, Candy and Brit (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson), as the professor goes on about ... is it the civil rights movement? The girls stop listening to draw a dick on their notebooks and take turns mock licking it. Then they put on ski masks and rob a diner to come up with the scratch for the trip.
For some reason, amid all the partying in St. Pete, they get singled out for arrest—or maybe they’re just part of the long line of kids busted that evening—but either way they wind up before the judge and then in jail and then bailed out of jail by Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and wannabe gangster. And at this point we think this: comeuppance. We think: These college girls tried to be what they weren’t—tough and bad ass—and now they’re dealing with the real thing; and now they’re going to pay. That’s the direction we seem to be going in. When Alien tries to seduce Faith, leaning in close, insinuating, it’s super creepy, and she begs the others to leave with her. They don’t. So she gets on the bus alone and gets out of Dodge. Why don’t they? Because they like it. Because they’re the real thing. At least two of them.
A key scene (although there really aren’t many scenes) is when these two, Candy and Brit, tell Alien how they robbed the diner, and how they yelled at everyone to get on the fucking floor, and they do this with Alien. They use his guns to tell him to get on the fucking floor. They put the gun in his mouth. They make him suck it. It’s sexy, actually, our first sexy scene in the movie, and it reverses the power structure within the movie. Suddenly they seem like the real deal and he seems the fake: the sad white boy with cornrows and gold-capped teeth who buys into gangsta culture.
Alien is in the midst of a turf war with a childhood friend and mentor, Archie (Gucci Mane), and they exchange words, and off of one bridge, gunfire. Cotty (Rachel Korine), the third rowdy blonde, gets hit, and scared, and goes back home, wherever that is. That leaves two. And Alien, who used to have a bit of a posse, at least the creepy ATL Twins (Sidney and Thurman Sewell), attacks Archie’s well-guarded compound with only himself and the two girls wearing pink ski masks. It’s all hallucinatory and in slow-mo, and Alien, that faker, never makes it off the dock. He’s killed fast. The two girls? They take out everyone else, including Archie, without a scratch, without splattered blood. Apparently Archie's a faker, too. No one's the real thing here. Then they ride out of Dodge in Alien’s Ferrari and into the sunset.
The unhappy happy ending
Is it a happy ending? Maybe it’s a play on a happy ending. It’s a fake, wish-fulfillment ending with a fake, arthouse tone. It’s the worst of both worlds.
I know others disagree. “Spring Breakers” is making a lot of 10-best lists. Certain critics see something profound in its awfulness: in the way it subverts the male gaze, or in its implied condemnation of the vapidity of our culture. I just hated it. How do you make a movie about the utter vapidity of our culture without being vapid? This was Harmony Korine’s attempt. Next.
Movie Review: Nebraska (2013)
In “Nebraska,” David Grant (Will Forte), a middle-aged man with a crappy retail-sales job and a nowhere life, offers to drive his grizzled, alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who believes himself to be a million-dollar sweepstakes winner, the 900 miles or so from Billings, Mont., where they live, to Lincoln, Neb., the headquarters of the publishing house offering the prize. Along the way, circumstances compel them to stop in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up, for a visit with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. These people are generally reticent, dull, and, once Woody’s suspect bounty is revealed, greedy. They are also without hope and opportunity, living in a dead-end town in a dead-end part of the country during the dead-end of the global financial meltdown. It’s a comedy.
What to make of “Nebraska”? It’s beautifully photographed (black and white), and doesn’t feel false,necessarily, since we all have distant relatives that seem dull and dimwitted. But there’s usually more to them, isn’t there? Even if the more is less? Hardly a racist word is spoken here, for example. Just something about “Jap cars” and even that racism seems old. It’s circa 1991. Or 1941.
No, the Grants’ distant relatives are just comic relief. They add to the sad absurdity that is Woody’s quest. The women gather in the kitchen to gossip and the men gather in the living room to watch television in silence. If they’re old, they fall asleep on the couch. If they’re young, they drink beer on the porch. David has two cousins like that, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), who stare at him with bug eyes, belittle his driving abilities (and, implied, manhood), and late in the game actually rob Woody of his sweepstakes announcement. They seem like characters John Candy could have played on SCTV.
At the same time, I was rarely uninterested in “Nebraska.” It affected me. Its tone sank into my bones like gray weather.
Problems with the basic premise
The opening image is a static shot of a nondescript part of Billings. In the distance, an old, grizzled man (Woody) walks towards us on the thin strip of grass between an unmoving railroad and a constantly moving highway: between the static past, you could say, and the constantly moving present. A cop stops him and asks, over the roar of the traffic, where he’s headed. Woody points toward us. And where is he coming from? Woody points back. Cue credits. At this point, I was ready to love the movie.
But I had trouble getting beyond its premise. Why would David agree to take his father to Lincoln to collect nothing? Isn’t his father suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s? And isn’t David’s own life going nowhere? He’s a clerk at an electronics store, lives in a flimsy apartment, wishes to start up a relationship again with a woman he doesn’t love. His life is sad sad sad. Does he have ambitions? Hopes? Fears? Who is he?
Later, David talks about his reasons for the trip: 1) He wants to get out of Billings; 2) he wants to spend more time with the old man; and 3) he wants the old man to shut up about the million dollars. Reasons 1 and 3 I can see, but 2? Who wants to spend days in a car with Bruce Dern?
I know, cheap shot, but this may be an instance where good casting works against a movie. Dern is getting acclaim for the role—best actor at Cannes, etc.—and he’s good, but a premise of the movie, a third-act revelation, is that David is “just like his father.” Really? David is too kind and too passive. He goes along to get along. So we’re supposed to believe that this cantankerous, alcoholic old man, played by Bruce Dern of all actors, was kind and passive in his youth? Have the filmmakers seen “Coming Home”? “The Great Gatsby”? “Marnie”? Anything?
For the impromptu family reunion in Hawthorne, both David’s mother, Kate (June Squib), and his more successful brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them. I like how both sons are played by comedians. I like how Ross is more successful but not a jerk. I didn’t like the mother’s outlandishness. Too much. When she hiked up her skirt at the cemetery to show a former beau what he was missing? Like that.
By this point Woody has blabbed about his winnings and everyone’s believed him, and when the family says, “No, he didn’t really win a million dollars,” everyone thinks it’s an attempt to shake them off the scent. Folks begin behaving badly. So do the Grants. Some of it’s funny. Mostly it’s just sad.
And all the while we’re wondering this: How can the filmmakers—director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson—give us a satisfying end? What can this road trip bring but more disappointment?
Here’s how. They make David even kinder than we thought he was, with access to more money than we thought he had.
In Lincoln, David and Woody walk into the home office of the publishing house, a nondescript building in a nondescript part of town, and a nondescript woman greets them. They say why they’ve come, she takes Woody’s announcement and punches the numbers into her computer. Sorry, she says. You didn’t win. Then she offers a consolation: How about a cap or blanket? He chooses the cap. He puts it on. It reads: PRIZE WINNER.
Why did he want the million dollars? That’s a question that’s come up several times in the movie, absurdly to me, since who wouldn’t want a million dollars? Money means opportunity and options. It means the end to the dead-end. But it’s asked, and Woody replies that he always wanted a brand-new truck (even though his driver’s license has been taken away), and an air compressor (even though he no longer has use for one). He also wishes he had a little something to leave his sons. He doesn’t like the idea of leaving them nothing.
“You should’ve thought of that before you threw your life away,” David replies.
Kidding. David doesn’t say that. Instead, in a used-car lot in Lincoln, he trades in his Japanese car for an American truck. Then he buys his father a useless brand-new air compressor. Then they return to Hawthorne and David lets Woody drive the truck slowly down Main Street.
It’s a sweet moment, a not-bad resolution. At the same time, it requires us to believe that everyone that matters to Woody in Hawthorne, former loves and current enemies, would be in the proper place at the proper time to see his one-man victory parade. It also requires us to believe that David has more disposable income than we were led to believe.
But that’s our end. And off they ride, a debt-ridden father and son, into a black-and-white American sunset.
I wanted to like “Nebraska.” But it portrays us as both better (David) and worse (almost everyone else) than we really are.