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Nebraska by Alexander Payne

February 8, 2014

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Lincoln, Nebraska makes me think of a Bruce Springsteen song, but the lyrics coming to my mind while I was watching the latest opus by Alexander Payne – a Nebraska native by the way – were from Omaha by The Counting Crows ¨I think you better turn your ticket in and get your money back at the door¨ because Nebraska’s plot has a lot to do with a ticket and money, but the film has little to do with the songs, after exploring the vines of California and the Hawaiian islands with mixed results Payne has returned back home to the settings of his first features (another back to basics connection is the fact that the lead role is played by Bruce Dern, while in Payne’s debut the lead was Dern’s daughter Laura) and though for the first time in his career he has not penned the screenplay – authored by Bob Nelson – Nebraska represents a return to form for Payne. It doesn’t matter if we call it a tragicomedy or else since one thing is for sure: Payne continues to explore dramatic situations in contemporary America but he is never shy to expose their comic or contradictory side, this kind of narrative style requires a huge equilibrium, this is an act of funambulism, it is tightrope walking,  we are witnessing a drama and the sudden burst of laughter has to come out of it spontaneously, we almost regret it, they are sad laughs, but we also realize that these laughs belong to the story and that they enrich its significance, to make them work the pitch has to be perfect and Payne here confirms that he is a genuine maestro of the genre.

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Payne and Phedon Papamichael – the cinematographer – have made the right choice going with black and white here, it helps to focus on the substance of things and with its infinite palette of grey it is the perfect tool to enhance the multifaceted aspects of Nebraska, the surface of the plot is plain and simple and in a way reminding of Lynch’s The Straight Story – though Payne’s agenda has nothing to do with Lynch’s – Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old drunkard from Billings, Montana who is convinced that he has won a million dollars at some kind of lottery and that he needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash the ticket, during the voyage there will be some disappointing – or even insulting – sightseeing at Mount Rushmore and a revealing family reunion in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the place where Woody was born and lived many years before moving to Montana. Why an old man who – in the words of his wife – has never cared in his life about being rich cannot see that the ticket is a scam? Is it the idea of returning to Nebraska that is working on his subconscious? Woody is a Korea veteran but he has never talked much about that experience so echoing the sentiment of his whole nation who has emphasized with every available media Vietnam and other wars but has forgot about Korea, we never fully understand why Woody Grant wants a million dollars, his only desire is to buy a new truck and an air compressor for himself and in the end to have something to leave to his sons, during his voyage to Nebraska he crosses a land of despair and lack of opportunities, what it is going to be his heritage and the heritage of the times he has lived? Bruce Dern gives a mighty performance as Woody but Nebraska exhibits a magnificent ensemble cast and June Squibb playing Woody’s wife is brilliant.

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