Bruce Dern gives a brave and unfaltering performance in Nebraska, the new movie by Alexander Payne. Dern has already won the best-actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and now his portrayal of an old man sinking into the confusion of senile dementia is being touted for an Oscar. This possibility has a sentimental attraction. The 77-year-old actor has been so memorable in so many movies over the past 50 years (he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the 1978 Coming Home) that we can’t help wanting to see him score a career-capping triumph. And maybe he will.
But Dern’s character in this movie—a crusty old coot named Woody Grant who has lost all interest in human interaction—is a very limited figure. Bumbling around with the splay-gaited walk of a man carefully scrunching insects underfoot, Woody is beaten-down and largely monosyllabic. He’s the fulcrum on which the story rests, but most of what we learn about him is laid out by subsidiary characters. This is an interesting narrative strategy, and Dern holds the screen with his total commitment; but the story is mostly advanced by the other actors, who are allowed more room to inject color and energy into the proceedings.
The real revelation in the picture, I think, is Will Forte, who plays Woody’s son, David—a young man who in his own way is as confused and aimless as his father. Stuck in a dead-end job (he’s an audio salesman in an electronics store) and recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend, David knows his life is going nowhere, but he has no idea what to do about it. Forte, best-known for his comedy work on Saturday Night Live and in the broad-as-a-barn-door MacGruber, plays it completely straight here, and his warm, thoughtful performance strongly suggests a new career direction.
We meet Woody wandering along a highway in Billings, Montana, where he lives. Woody wanders a lot in his dwindling years, and David is often called upon to reel him back in. This time, though, Woody won’t be held in check. He has received a letter from a direct-marketing outfit announcing that he has won a million dollars —followed by a heavily qualifying “if,” which Woody ignores. He’s determined to make the 800-mile trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the company is headquartered, to claim his windfall. David knows the letter is a scam, and he’s reluctant to facilitate his father’s delusion. And Woody’s nasty, irascible wife, Kate (June Squibb, of About Schmidt), and his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are convinced it’s time to park Woody in an old-age home. But David eventually realizes that his dad has finally found a purpose in his drab life, so he agrees to be Woody’s driver. And off they go.
Dern never stoops to easy pathos here. His Woody is a surly, unpleasant man, and the actor never tries to soft-sell him. En route to Nebraska, David makes a short detour to give Woody a look at Mount Rushmore. Squinting up at the giant rock faces, Woody is sourly unimpressed. “Doesn’t look like it’s finished,” he mutters. “Looks like somebody got bored doin’ it.”
A little farther along, David decides to make another stop, at Woody’s childhood hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit his even-older brother (Rance Howard). A big family gathering has been planned, and David hopes to use the interlude to persuade Woody to call off their pointless quest.
Payne has shot the film in widescreen black-and-white, a format that inevitably recalls such great ’70s movies as Badlands and The Last Picture Show. Here, it’s ideal in conveying the chilly winter monotony of life in a small town like (the fictitious) Hawthorne, with its empty streets and oppressive air of nothing ever happening. The director, a Nebraska native himself, strikes some memorable notes—a scene in which aged members of the extended Grant family are shown crammed into a small living room staring mutely at a blaring television has a particular kind of claustrophobic horror.
It is in Hawthorne that we begin to learn more about Woody’s past—his long-ago loves, his business setbacks (it turns out he was once a kind and generous man, a soft touch for needy friends). And when Woody unwisely announces that he is now a millionaire (which of course he’s not), we get an unsettling depiction of the avarice of desperate people with long-deferred dreams. A menacing character named Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach)—Woody’s one-time partner in a car-repair garage—suddenly remembers that Woody owes him money; now he wants it paid back, with heavy interest. And Woody’s two fat-slob nephews (Kevin Kunkel and Devin Ratray, wonderfully moronic) also begin to circle, with violence in mind.
The story proceeds along a string of carefully arranged details. Nothing showy happens—the movie is resolute in maintaining its small-bore focus on Woody and David, and the low-key maneuverings of the rural characters who cluster around them. It’s a rewarding film, especially in the performances of Dern and Forte; but in the impressive resume of Alexander Payne—the man who wrote Sideways and directed The Descendants—Nebraska is a relatively, and perhaps intentionally, minor work.
Charlie Countryman isn’t a bad movie; it’s a movie of jaw-dropping awfulness. We realize this right at the beginning, watching the young slacker Charlie (Shia LaBeouf) in a hospital room where his mother (Melissa Leo) is dying. The minute she kicks it, a twirling wisp of soul-steam or something dances up out of her body, and we’re immediately alerted—uh oh, magic realism. This fear is confirmed moments later when now-dead Mom reappears to Charlie in a hallway outside the room, looking none the worse for being deceased, and tells him to go to Bucharest. “Why?” Charlie asks. “Because it’s a cheap place to shoot a movie,” Mom says. Well, no she doesn’t. What she actually says is, “I don’t know, it seems specific.”
Did any of the people involved in making this picture see the script before the cameras started rolling? Was there a script? Or did writer Matt Drake simply refuse to show it to them? We’ll probably never know, and certainly never care.
Charlie, a young man with an apparently empty appointment calendar, boards a flight to Bucharest and finds himself sitting next to a hearty Romanian gentleman named Victor (Ion Caramitru). Just as we’re beginning to find this character annoying, he suddenly dies, right there in his seat. Then—as if by magic!—he’s back, imploring Charlie to deliver to his daughter, Gabi, a funny hat he has bought for her in the States. Then he returns to being dead.
In Bucharest, after one of the movie’s many expanses of shameless runtime-padding, Charlie hooks up with Gabi, who’s played by Evan Rachel Wood under a heavy spackling of mascara, with an accent as thick as Carpathian molasses. Gabi plays the cello with a symphony orchestra, but she also packs a gun and hangs out with local drug dealers, chief among them her Romanian ex-boyfriend (Mads Mikkelsen), whose name, most oddly, is Nigel. Charlie is instantly smitten.
As Charlie races around Bucharest (where slo-mo is apparently a favored mode of transport), the movie pokes around in search of a reason to exist. Charlie checks into a neo-hippie hostel and shares a room with two comic-relief Brits, played, likably enough, by Rupert Grint and James Buckley. They’re soon joined by a swarm of topless fantasy chicks. There’s a witless Viagra-overdose scene, and an appearance by a Nigel sub-thug named Darko (Til Schweiger). Then there’s a cat-and-mouse subway chase that was surgically removed from The French Connection and dropped in here to remind us, as this movie stumbles on, what a good movie that one was. The magical stuff won’t quit, either: Staring down into the bottom of a restroom urinal, Charlie sees a Surrealism 101 eyeball staring back up at him. Just because, I guess.
Maybe all of this pointless action would have worked better as a silent movie. Unfortunately, the characters speak. Nigel is supposed to be a scary hood (with the requisite scary-hood neck tattoo), but when he confronts Charlie in one scene, the first words out of his mouth are, “Can you do that Dizzy Gillespie thing with your cheeks? Where he was all puffy-fish?” Gabi explains, unnecessarily, why she’s no longer hot for this guy. “Nigel was wrong for me,” she tells Charlie. “And wrong is wrong.” Charlie urges her to focus on their love, which has blossomed out of nowhere, for no reason. “It’s the pearl,” he says. “The rest is oyster.”
It would be wrong to blame the actors for this mess. They do what they can with what little they’ve been given; and LaBeouf, especially, should be encouraged whenever he chooses to step away from his unending Transformers franchise, even if it requires adopting a sad little ponytail. The Swedish director, Fredrik Bond, a specialist in high-end corporate TV commercials, can be faulted mainly for terrible judgment in signing on to a ghastly project like this. Nobody could be blamed for walking out on it. Assuming anyone will be walking in.