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For the most part, I found Alexander Payne's American heartland drama, Nebraska, a rank exercise in hicksploitation sentimentalism. It's almost always a crapshoot whether the filmmaker's self-consciously low-key aesthetic will play with pointed insight or freakish repellence; even in one of his best works, the Hawaii-set The Descendants, Payne can't resist reducing wronged woman Judy Greer to a hysteria-prone punchline. Sad to say that his worst instincts win out here.
Nebraska feels off from the start, right from the appearance of the old-time Paramount logo that several current directors have used to signify their nostalgic love for 1970s American cinema and implied disdain for the present. (The golden-years affect has long gotten old, and artists should really stop feeling embarrassed about making movies for their own time.) Furthering the those-were-the-days noxiousness is Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography, reportedly post-converted from color, which has all the textural quality of curdled milk, as well as the presence of '70s character actor du jour Bruce Dern as the film's Alzheimer's afflicted protagonist Woody Grant.
Montana-residing Woody is so convinced he's won a million dollars in one of those scam mail-in sweepstakes that he often wanders off on his own in an attempt to collect the prize. His son David (Will Forte, just terrible) is always called in to pick up Dad on the side of the road or at the police station. Frustrated with this predictable cycle, as well as with his own static life, David decides to take Pop on a road trip to the sweepstakes headquarters in Nebraska. A minor accident along the way diverts the duo to Woody's old hometown, where they stay with some officious, money-grubbing relatives and confront a few lingering issues from the past.
There's no shortage of slack-jawed yokel stereotyping in Nebraska (Payne takes great delight in portraying a Sunday family dinner strictly divided along women-in-the-kitchen and men-watching-football gender lines). But I don't think that's the real problem, since plenty of movies—David Lynch's The Straight Story is an especially apt point of comparison—have used exaggeration to unearth profound truths about regional communities that are not often portrayed on cinema screens.
Payne knows this location well—he was born and still has family in Nebraska—and the characters are clearly drawn from experience. (June Squibb is sure to be singled out for supporting actor accolades as Woody's speaks-her-mind spouse, Kate.) What rankles is the abyssal and abysmal disconnect between the filmmaker's apparent understanding of his subject and how he executes that vision onscreen.
It mostly comes down to an unharmonious mix of lowest common denominator satire and treacly emotionalism. Payne will follow one such track for a tedious while—such as a grating cemetery sequence in which the saucy Kate criticizes a number of dead acquaintances before flashing her nether-regions at an old flame's headstone—then grindingly switch gears into sickly-sweet, heartstring-plucking territory. I hope to see no scene this year as off-puttingly pleased with its own bathos as Woody and David's climactic, reconciliatory truck ride down main street.
Neither tone meshes well with the other (it's like watching two different films, one composed of sugar the other of arsenic, blended coarsely together). Plus, there's a special place in hell reserved for Mark Orton's maudlin score, which obsequiously indicates every emotion you're supposed to feel, even as it sticks in your head with its inane, elevator-muzak repetitiveness. Payne can only go up from this misfire. One hopes.
A few quick words on another regional effort: Johnnie To's Blind Detective, far from being the martial-arts ass-kicker promised by its marketing, is actually a broader-than-broad comedy about a retinally-damaged cop (Andy Lau) who teams up with a policewoman (Sammi Cheng) to help solve a few cold cases, one of them very personal. Its screechy, nails-on-blackboard tone is clearly pitched at a Hong Kong audience, and if the stone-cold reactions that greeted the film at my screening are any indication, it's unlikely to find its way stateside beyond a few niche fests.
There's still something fascinating about the relentlessness of the humor, which manages to make light of murder, cannibalism and oversexed grandmas among other wild targets. It also helps that To treats the proceedings like a master-goofing-off lark, and that Lau and Cheng have an alternately aggravating and ingratiating chemistry that suggests Nick and Nora Charles as played by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A Looney time, alright.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich
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