Saturday, March 01, 2014

A State of Mind

I've seen five out of the nine Oscar nominated Best Pictures this year, and I'd figured that was as good as it was going to get before tomorrow's ceremony. But then Netflix surprised me this week by sending the just-out-on-DVD Nebraska.

Nebraska is about an old man suffering from increasing dementia, who becomes convinced that the magazine solicitation he's received in the mail is a promise that he's won a million dollars. He is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize in person -- even if that means walking there. So his son agrees to a road trip, with a stop first at the small town where his father grew up.

A number of this year's Oscar contenders are flawed movies featuring great performances. Nebraska might just be the epitome of this. Bruce Dern is wonderful as the aging father who isn't quite "all there." He's the right blend of sympathetic and prickly, clueless and smart. Even better is June Squibb as his much put-upon wife, delivering the biggest laughs of the movie. Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte gives an understated and natural performance as their son. In other solid but smaller appearances, there's Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, and Rance Howard, among a number of other wonderful character actors.

But the movie isn't exactly brisk. It's chasing smiles much more than belly laughs, and even those it wants to earn amid a bunch of more introspective moments. And yet on the dramatic side of the coin, the movie is good without ever really being profound. It doesn't have much more to say than "this is dementia."

Still, it would be agreeable enough if it weren't for director Alexander Payne's decision to film in black and white. This turns a light comedy-drama into something unnecessarily pretentious. You're simply too aware of the stark look of the photography. It plays like a Calvin Klein commercial, or a too-arty foreign film that ought to be subtitled. The story wants to be very human and pull you in; the look of it wants to keep you at a remove and push you away. Something that should feel current instead feels historical.

Nebraska is by no means a bad movie, but it certainly doesn't deserve to be an Oscar contender in my book. I give it a B-.

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