Alexander Payne gets Lost in Nebraska
You’d never know from the look of Nebraska that Payne grew up in the American Midwest. The imagery (photographed by Phedon Papamichael who gave splendor to Wim Wenders’ The Million Dollar Hotel) is so stylized it is distant from American external reality and the combination of open-air space and strip-mall banality results in unmistakable condescension.
Payne hates the place but loves to return to it to (in Election, About Schmidt) to confirm his contempt for its people. Nebraska is full of art-movie conceits—starting with a protagonist whose name reverses the painter of the iconographic portrait American Gothic—designed to make Manhattan-to-L.A. viewers feel superior. Every billboard is dilapidated, every storefront is pathetic: “Collette’s Beauty Salon,” “Sodbusters” and “Blinker’s Tavern” where the inevitable karaoke scene takes place.
Nebraska ridicules “folksiness.” Papamichael’s B&W doesn’t evoke Old Hollywood warmth as Peter Bogdanovich and Lazslo Kovacs did in Paper Moon; it’s a gloss placed over the frustrations of ex-urban WASP Americans, all shown to be petty, fussy, ornery yet simple-minded. Woody Grant’s selfishness and greed makes his road trip solipsistic, despite sharing close-quarters with his youngest son David (Will Forte) who escorts him—it’s an escape from his squat, craggy, profane wife Kate (June Squibb). The journey into Woody’s past (like Professor Borg’s in Wild Strawberries) exposes old friends and family as enemies.
But Payne’s strange process of mockery—presenting personality quirks as character flaws (there’s a difference)—is reprehensibly cynical. It recalls Billy Wilder’s method of turning everyone except his heroes into rubes, rogues or suckers. As Wilder proved, this can lead to a successful career by confusing peoples’ nervousness and insecurity and letting them turn on their peers. That’s the discomforting basis of Nebraska—Woody, David and Kate are so self-loathing they irritate each other (a father-son Odd Couple) and becoming preemptive with everyone around them.
Payne has achieved an odd status as the most judgmental among the American Eccentrics directors; he uses his urbane posture against middle-class characters who don’t share his “sophistication.” It’s a warp of Preston Sturges’ humanism; Payne would never be this condescending toward characters who inhabited Manhattan or Los Angeles, the meccas of “sophistication.” But Payne scores points against fly-over states, then sentimentalizes their pathetic plainness. His imitation Edward Hopper anomie is not chic, just cheek. Worse than cornball; it’s fake and hateful.
Nebraska doesn’t show true American eccentricity (the various kinds of individuality and warmth seen in Paul Mazusky’s Old Man on the Road movie Harry & Tonto). Payne’s affectation (the defect of pseudo-class progress familiar among artist who attain some level of prominence and disdain/sentimentalize their humble beginnings) poisons his conceit. By casting Bruce Dern, once a reliably unprepossessing character-actor, Payne vacates his own creation. Dern is too right to play an unlikable character and the other actors (including non-actress Ruth Squibb as Kate, Woody’s salty-tongued wife) don’t pass the believability test. (Only an out-of-touch Upper West Side Manhattan audience would laugh at Kate’s cuss-words or flashing her panties at a gravesite.) These phony, lifeless stereotype performances are exactly the characterizations Payne’s fakery deserves.
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