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For Your Consideration: 'Nebraska'

The Academy has made its nominations for the year, and it has not improved my declining willingness to care about them. It does give me an idea of what films I really need to see, of those I missed during the year, but so do the awards from various critics' associations and critics' Best of the Year roundups, which are superior because they are more impartial. The most recent film from director Alexander Payne would have been on my list in any case. His last feature, The Descendants, was one of my favorite movies in consideration last year, but it was far afield from his home territory, the American plains, where he grew up and continues to spend a lot of time shooting.

Nebraska returns to the formula of Payne's earlier films Sideways and About Schmidt, which concerned voyages of self-discovery. In both, it was an impending marriage that was the impetus for the journey, while in Nebraska the motivating life-altering event may be construed as death. Woody, an aging father of two grown sons in Montana, takes a sweepstakes "award" notification at face value, setting off to pick up his million-dollar prize in Lincoln, Nebraska, on foot if need be. His son David, who is at a crossroads in his own life, floundering in his career and just broken up with his girlfriend, decides to drive Woody to Lincoln, which seems the only way to make his dad understand that the prize is not what he thinks it is. A trip with someone who is forgetful and prone to wander off turns out not to be as easy as David thought, and his mother suggests that they stop for the weekend in Hawthorne, the Nowhereburg where Woody spent his childhood. His dad's former life is unearthed, and when people get wind of the million-dollar prize, everyone wants a piece of the action. In Hawthorne, which here represents all of those little towns in middle America that are dying, there is not much else to put one's hope on.

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If the movie has a harder edge, making it not feel quite like Payne's earlier features, it is likely because the screenwriter here is not Payne, but Bob Nelson, for whom this is the first major writing credit. That makes Nelson's nomination for an Academy Award, for Writing an Original Screenplay, quite a coup. Much about the script rings true to me -- someone who grew up not in the plains but in the Midwest -- especially the monosyllabic older male characters, who carry heavy silences looped around their necks. Bruce Dern deserves the nomination he received for Best Actor in that regard, for having incarnated that laconic quality in a role that is so central, yet never losing one's attention. Other things about the script rang less true, especially in the writing for the other members of Woody's family -- both Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, as Woody's sons, felt far less natural. June Squibb's feisty portrayal of Woody's wife got a nod for Best Supporting Actress, but while her sharp tongue reminded me of many women I grew up knowing, her frank talk on the sexual history of Hawthorne, including herself, did not.

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Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne)
Payne's decision to shoot the film in wide-screen black and white left me wondering. On one hand it added a certain nobility to the dreary locations, making for some grand beauty shots of the big skies and broad vistas (earning cinematographer Phedon Papamichael a nomination, in which category he will likely lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity). On the other hand, it felt like a crutch to the nostalgia the film sought to inspire, as Woody and his family revisited the sites and people of his childhood. Places become so imbued with memory, and color is part of it. This past summer, I went back to the small town in Michigan where I grew up and swam in memories in many places, like the olde-time train station, which has not changed a bit since I sat there with my parents as a child, waiting for the arrival of an aunt or cousin. The "skyscraper" building where I once visited my father's office, which seemed like the grandest building I had ever seen -- the atrium, the glass and steel, the sleek escalators -- had had a major fire and was condemned to be torn down. Those feelings came to mind as Woody and his family visit the farmstead where he grew up, now abandoned and falling to pieces. Payne, nominated for Best Director, gets at that intersection between person and time like few others.

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