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Nebraska

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The Descendants was a complex movie, but the word for Nebraska, Alexander Payne's latest outing, is good intentioned. Not since Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels has a director been able to insinuate the presence of so much goodness in such a stark American Gothic setting. The fact that the film is shot in black and white is almost confusing. It adds a nourish quality that at first belies the emotions at hand. It's like the Macguffin that never amounts to much. Nebraska starts with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) leaving Billings, Montana for Lincoln, Nebraska and the beaten town of Hawthorne where much of the action takes place is filled with the kind of freaks and criminals that populate Coen Brothers movies like Fargo (one of these, a garage owner named Ed Pegram played by Stacey Keach, allows Payne to place two veteran actors in a showdown). "See Us Fo Your House Loan,"reads the highway ad for one of Hawthorne's banks. But then the plot takes over and Payne demonstrates the ability to turn caricature into something more universal. Woody, who is suffering from a mixture of wet brain and senile dementia, has received a sweepstakes notice sent out by a magazine subscription service and is convinced he's won a million dollars. It's apparent to David that it's all a merchandising scheme, but he goes along with his father's delusion, realizing that "the guys just needs something to live for." The role of Woody is a brilliant creation since it cuts a large enough swathe to encompass the delusion, the life-lie, the pipe dreams that are the essence of the human condition. David humors his dad, but also uses the journey they set out on to get to know the man who continues to be an enigma. At one point David asks, "Did you ever want a farm like your dad." "I don't remember and it doesn't matter" is the only response. Woody and David exhibit the mixture of estrangement and intimacy that characterizes many father/son relationships, even though this pair are particularly lacking in communication skills. The coup de grace lies in the discovery of Woody's simple, but touching motive. Suffice it to say that while he doesn't end up getting what he's come for, he gets everything he wants.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}