Nebraska (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (UK); January 24th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

Alexander Payne truly has a knack for relaying the road story on screen. You need more than an echelon of soul, characters whose individual hearts collectively beat in time with the narrative, and a narrative that quips comically, evolves raucously and affirms genuinely. In Sideways, he created a cinematic Everest, a pinnacle that will require something pretty spectacular to reach. And although Nebraska — Payne’s latest venture into the genre that sees characters finding their way around town before finding themselves — doesn’t quite reach the Sideways summit, it’s still a comforting, humorous and reminiscing ride.

Absolutely dead-cert he’s stumbled upon a one million dollar sweepstakes letter, getting to Lincoln, Nebraska is the first, last and only thing on Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) torpedoing mind. If it weren’t for highway patrol, he’d have walked there. His end goal momentarily scuppered by the confines of a police station and a sigh-fully approaching son, Woody mentally prepares a case for action. Because in his eyes, there’s a mound of cash crying out to him at the end of a Nebraskan road. Son David (Will Forte) believes the letter is a scam, and initially denounces Woody’s nonsensical intentions. However, after a number of persistence-driven incidents, David agrees to chauffeur his father towards the elder’s prescribed destination; probably not out of curiosity, rather, in order to spend time with his ageing old man.

From its elegant cinematography to a perfectly poised story, Nebraska evokes a sense of accomplishment and craftsmanship. Of course, the road-trip mantra will always centre on character study, and it’s no different here. However to not acknowledge the technical prowess on display would be doing the film a disservice. The black-and-white scape works both as a visual appeasement and as a narrative cog, as it represents not only the blunt tone, but also Woody’s depreciating mind and somewhat selfish outlook. In composing a curtain of sound, Mark Orton infuses proceedings with a Wild West twang, harking connotations of the primitive western ‘every man for themselves’ adage. Technically, the film is better than proficient. It is wholly engaging.

Having communicated the industrial superlatives, I ought to focus on the film as a depiction of characters, because without doubt Nebraska is about people and family and relationships. Those, and the subsequent pile of complex baggage associated with such humanistic tendencies. Although Woody isn’t the most amiable chap — his monetary determination prevails above all else — the viewer still sympathises with him to the point where you are subliminally rooting for the lead to walk away with a heap of cash, if only to see him smile. Bruce Dern embodies the retired Woody in all his stout manliness (“I served my country, I paid my taxes”), a portrayal that in many other hands would sway towards generic, yet Dern emits realism. But he’s also frail and his exuberance is quenched before it really gets going, demanding many a refuelling tavern trip.

Will Forte is the caring son David, who stands by his father through thick and thin. Forte must act as a sufficient bumper against all of Woody’s grouchy impulses, a challenging task if there ever was. The duo are essentially a two-man act, strained as a pairing but valiant against any external threat (much like Miles and Jack in Sideways). Enter June Squibb as mother Kate, the experienced firecracker of the family, whose hilarious opening statement sets the tone for her appearance: “You dumb cluck!” The withered status of Kate and Woody’s relationship is prevalent throughout, but it’s a natural abrasion brought on through years of being together, rather than simply a clash of personalities. Squibb impeccably channels her character’s outspoken demeanour into one of protection over Woody.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is terrific, and Alexander Payne coats an affirming lesson with crude comedy. As father and son settle down at a family gathering alongside a ramshackle troupe of wordless Woodys and ditsy Davids, we watch that familiar social awkwardness at its most humorous. Cousins Cole and Bart insist on mundane car conversations, but at least someone is trying to cover over the cracks of silence. “Cole here did some jail”… maybe silence was the way to go after all. And it’s that tonal take-no-prisoners style that the film thrives on. Yet, there is a dramatic strand running throughout, one that takes its subject matter seriously. Woody is old. His senses are dwindling; he walks along motorways and unwittingly unveils his perceived monetary gain to strangers and enemies. This melancholic exercise on advancing years and losing oneself is relatable — everybody gets old, and many of us have spent time with elderly loved ones. Whilst Woody’s millionaire claims are momentarily amusing, they’re also sad in reflection as we see judgement fail him. At one point, you question Woody’s actual intentions: to chase a false dream, or to live and relive a reminiscent present? For David, the road-trip is a touching venture of discovery about the wholesome life endured by his father, a man you don’t get the impression David knows all that well, despite their familial ties.

Nebraska is another successful excursion for its director. Suitable in its simplicity and subtle in its sensitivity, the film is spearheaded by three admirably relatable performances. At the end of it all, Payne reflects on trust, on bonding, and on seizing the moment. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is, to quote Woody himself, “Pretty good”.

Sideways (2004)

★★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: January 21st, 2005 (US); January 25th, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed Sideways is best described by the wonderful Roger Ebert as a “human comedy” because it is inherently funny in that you will laugh regardless of how you feel or where you are, and because it is about engrossing and affecting human beings. None of the four featured characters are perfect, some less so than others, yet on varying levels they all merit more than a degree or two of admiration; even though the two males in particular do the wrong thing too often. In Miles’ case, his inability to move on or tell the truth relentlessly hampers himself, whereas Jack’s carelessness and naivety frequently has a negative impact on those closest to him.

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) spends most of his time teaching wearily, writing unsuccessfully, or drinking wine because it is the only thing he knows for certain that he is consistently capable of doing. A wine-aficionado, Miles decides to take his soon-to-be-married best friend and former college room-mate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a week-long wine-tasting expedition as a final farewell to single life. Jack used to be a fairly successful actor but now plies his trade doing voice-over work for television adverts. Both men are opposites: Miles is quiet and very often lifeless in comparison to his overly energetic best friend. The one thing that both men have in common though is their shared struggle in accepting what they have (Jack) or what they no longer have (Miles).

One of the most endearing elements of Sideways is the relationship which Miles and Jack share. Externally, the duo appear to have very little in common, yet much like the wine they are drinking, there is a vintage dynamic between the pair. This strikes in the premature stage of their road trip as Jack’s first words to Miles are, “Where the fuck were you, man?” It is not before long, however, that both men are effortlessly trading life-stories and bonding over an expensive, rare bottle of wine. Jack is reassuring, but Miles is worried that the book he has written will not be accepted by the publishing company. From the outset, it is apparent that the film is in good hands as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church generate a believable on-screen chemistry. For every quiver of uncertainty from Giamatti, Church responds just as you expect a best friend would — quickly and decisively.

It is not long before the men reach their destination in the Santa Ynez Valley, at a restaurant which Miles eats in regularly on his trips, called The Hitching Post. Miles is recently divorced from his wife, who has moved on and is getting married again. A waitress at the restaurant, Maya (Virginia Madsen), knows Miles from previous visits and it soon becomes apparent through his inability to hold a conversation with Maya that Miles’ likes her, but does not have the conviction to do anything about it. Perhaps this is because he shows no signs of getting over his wife. During another morning spent wine-tasting, the men run in to Stephanie (Susan Oh) and discover that she is a friend of Maya’s. Miles’ reluctance once again prevails as he is forced into a double-date with the quartet, whereas Jack’s over-exuberance is in full effect. With his marriage taking place in just a few days, he selfishly desires one last fling, highlighting his struggle to be happy with the cards he has been dealt.

Both men’s problems are derived partly from their lack of clarity with each other. The duo have been close friends for a lifetime and it is apparent that more often than not their focus has been solely on themselves rather than on trying to sort out the other’s problem. Miles is fully aware of Jack’s misdemeanours — he is having an affair with another woman days before his marriage — but Miles too busy struggling with his own relationship-less inadequacies to notice. On the flip side, Jack seemingly has been too tentative in the past when it comes to trying to get Miles to realise that he must let go of what he can no longer hold on to. The two woman that the men meet on the trip are key players in the goings-on: Stephanie, unaware of Jack’s impending marital status, acts as an appealing alternative, and Maya is the cure to many of Miles’ problems if only he would take the time to focus on her.

Even amongst the abundance of drama and difficulty, Sideways still finds a great deal of time to be funny and witty. This is in no small part down to the combination of a well-written script, the rapport between those involved and a jaunty, caper-like soundtrack. The two leading men find themselves in their fair share of comical situations, be that whilst playing a round of golf or when trying to retrieve a missing wallet. These absurd antics remain humour-filled despite the heavy emotional element which surrounds film, showcasing the versatility of not only the actors, but also of the director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor.

The performances in Sideways are second-to-none. Thomas Haden Church delivers the perfect foil to his partner-in-crime’s unenthusiastic disposition as he is suitably loud and obnoxious, yet maintains a level of subtle affection towards the other characters. Sandra Oh is headstrong and teasing opposite Haden Church, playing her significant part in the proceedings solidly. Much like you would not necessarily picture Paul Giamatti’s Miles and Thomas Haden Church’s Jack as best friends, it is even more unlikely that Giamatti and Virginia Madsen’s characters would share affection. However both actors make it utterly likely. One scene in particular stands out between the pair and involves Giamatti gingerly describing why he admires the pinot noir grape so much: “it is hard grape to grow”; “not a survivor”; “needs constant care and attention”; “only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential, can then coax it into its fullest expression.” He is describing himself, and Madsen’s gracefully delivered, touching reply makes for an extraordinary exchange.

It is no wonder Sideways was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay. Alexander Payne creates compelling characters who increasingly flourish in their surroundings and as they come to understand each other. It is funny, moving, sad, and hopeful all at the same time, as it tells the story of people who are lost, but who just need each other in order to find themselves again.