Alexander Payne has become one of those figures who isn’t just a film director — he’s a genre. As much as I love Election, his 1999 breakthrough film, the Payne movie that really kicked off the Payne format was About Schmidt (2002). The leisurely, semi-planted version of the road-trip structure; the classically framed images of a falling-down American middle class that Hollywood is no longer in touch with and no longer knows how to show us; the earnest, damaged heroes with their family ties and family demons; the arcs that are built not out of screenwriting-class “story points” but, rather, out of experience — arcs that serve as emotional bridges from one state of being to another. Not every Payne film conforms to every one of these traits (The Descendants wasn’t a road movie — though I’d argue it was a road movie of the spirit), but Payne Land is still, by now, a familiar and even cozy place, with its own off-kilter humor and skewed, knuckleball humanity.
All of which makes Nebraska, which premiered today at Cannes, a whimsical minor addition to the Payne canon. The movie is shot in black-and-white and set mostly in Hawthorne, Nebraska, an economically crumbling small town (population: 1,300), and the images — of highways and farms, of streets with shuttered stores, of tacky night-glowing bars and even tackier homes — are, I must say, breathtaking in a clean, spare way. If you’re going to shoot a movie in black-and-white (a surefire commercial detriment, according to the current thinking), then you’d better believe this is the way to do it: by making the images look like Ansel Adams collaborated with Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper.
Within those stately austere frames, Payne tells the story of David Grant (played by Will Forte of Saturday Night Live), a genial loser of a stereo salesman who still lives in his hometown of Billings, Montana; and also his father, Woody (Bruce Dern), a softly grizzled old coot with flyaway white hair who we meet in the opening scene as he wanders down a highway like some homeless bumpkin. Is he suffering from dementia? Possibly the earliest signs of it, but really, Woody’s problem is that he’s a frail, dejected, emotionally disconnected geezer who has spent his life pickling his brain in alcohol. He lives in a self-centered fog of his own devising. The reason he’s wandering down that highway is that he thinks he’s won a million dollars: In the mail, he received one of those Mega Sweepstakes Marketing “prizes” (which are really just gimmicks to sell magazine subscriptions), and since he isn’t allowed to drive, he has decided to walk all the way from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Sweepstakes office is, in order to claim his million. (“It says I won!”)
David, who along with his TV-news-reporter brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), realizes that it might be getting time for Dad to go into a nursing home, decides to deal with the situation by driving Woody to Lincoln in order to get the prize-money fantasy out of his system. Along the way, they stop in Hawthorne, where Woody grew up, and they end up stuck there for the weekend. They visit Woody’s brothers, they visit the old farmhouse where he grew up (it’s still there, but now abandoned), and they run into Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), the nasty blowhard he once owned a garage with. Woody is old, and pretty much everyone they meet is old. The movie is Payne’s offhanded “salute” to all the anonymous, aging Americans who sit around in cramped living rooms watching TV, with nothing much on their minds but the past.
Is Payne, working from a script by Bob Nelson, mocking these people? Or does he have affection for them? Well, both. And probably more affection than mockery. You could argue that there’s an ever-so-slightly patronizing here’s-what-the-humdrum-little-people’s-lives-are-like attitude running through Nebraska, but really, the true limitation of the movie is that Woody, though Dern plays him with pitch-perfect trembly, frail befuddlement, is not a major Payne character. Neither is Forte’s David. The comedian, who doesn’t have one laugh line in the movie, is used for his airy, regular-guy facade, and he doesn’t give a bad performance, but we never learn all that much about David. He’s a decent chap who basically spends the entire film doing damage control for his inept, cantankerous father.
For a while, everyone in Hawthorne thinks that Woody really has won a million dollars — a Preston Sturges joke that, in this case, speaks to a small-town culture on the skids. Over the course of a few days, David learns a lot about Woody, filling in the gaps of his existence that Woody himself was too indifferent or depressed to fill in for him. And what’s genuinely touching about the movie is this: It allows you to glimpse the powerful entirety of even the most ordinary life. After a while, Woody’s wife shows up, and in her quarrelsome way, she’s kind of a wacky character (I mean that in both good and bad ways), a Catholic who’s fixated on gossip and the behavior of “sluts.” June Squibb, who plays her, has a great Midwestern-mom look, and we realize that it’s her Kate who has really held their lives together. Nebraska is a nice movie, and it goes through its paces in that patented Alexander Payne mode of acerbically touching homespun quirkiness. But when I just wrote that sentence, at least a part of me was tempted to replace the word “mode” with “formula.”
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Here’s a trivia question: What are the only two movies in history to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards? Drum roll, please….the two films are The Lost Weekend (1945) and Marty (1955). It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? And I don’t expect that this year is going to break that pattern. What strikes me, though, looking over my roster of what I would call the year’s likeliest Palme d’Or contenders, is that there’s a fascinating overlap right now in Cannes/Hollywood awards potential. My personal favorite film of the festival — and it shocks me a little to say this — is Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s wickedly fun and dark and moving Liberace-in-love biopic. It’s not just me, either: The film has provoked such a tremendous response here that though it’s not even going to play in American movie theaters (it premieres on HBO this Sunday, May 26, at 9:00 p.m.), I think it has an honest shot at winning the Palme d’Or. That said, the fact that it is a made-for-television movie will not help its chances. What I’m now absolutely convinced of is that if a major movie studio had backed Behind the Candelabra, and had released it as an outré prestige film during awards season, it could have gotten a slew of Oscar nominations, with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon each having a good chance to win. As it stands, I predict that the film will be recognized, in some fashion, by the Cannes jury. (It will also clean up at the Emmys and the Golden Globes.)
That leaves, in my view, two other key contenders for the Palme d’Or. They are The Past, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s masterful follow-up to A Separation, and Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ playfully cynical early-’60s New York folk-music fable, a movie that a lot of people here loved more than I did. Which is not to say that I dismiss it: It’s supremely well-crafted, with tasty touches throughout, and so amazingly shot that its spare, burnished images of Greenwich Village in 1961 imprint themselves on your imagination. The Coen brothers haven’t won the Palme d’Or since Barton Fink — that’s right, Barton Fink — won in 1991. I could easily see them winning this year. And, once again, if they do, there will be major Cannes/Hollywood synergy, since I think that Inside Llewyn Davis is going to be a multiple-category Oscar contender.
The movie could win…but I don’t think it will. With as powerful a figure as Steven Spielberg heading the Cannes jury this year, attempting to predict what the jury is going to do by trying to guess what Spielberg would do seems, to me, to be all to the point. (That’s not always the case. But the head of the jury does have notorious sway here. It’s a France/hierarchical/ political thing.) My hunch is that Spielberg will go for The Past — that he will not only want to salute what a brilliant and humane filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is, but that there’s something about the way Farhadi’s films work that will strike a special chord in Spielberg. Farhadi makes neorealist domestic dramas that are also, in their intimate way, thrillers. He draws on, and extends, traditions of cinema, from Kiarostami to Renoir to Hitchcock, that reach back nearly a century. World cinema, if you travel to enough film festivals, is on some level thriving, but it is not necessarily thriving in a populist way. As relatively young as his career may be, it would feel right this year for Asghar Farhadi to be indoctrinated into the pantheon of Cannes auteurs. And that’s why, with admittedly two more days of the festival to go (who knows what will be shown?), I predict that The Past will take the Palme d’Or.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: