Million Dollar Baby

I really admire Alexander Payne's career. No matter how his movies strike me, I'd never argue that they're lazy or rote. He always puts forth an interesting idea that's ripe for analysis and fosters good discussion. You'll never catch me arguing about the themes of Transformers over a pint, but there's always so much to be talked about in a Payne film. That's not to say I love them all without reserve. Election and Sideways were fantastic, but I was more equivocal about The Descendants. I haven't seen Citizen Ruth, and though I know I have seen About Schmidt, I can't for the life of me remember a single scene of it. So while I'm never guaranteed to enjoy a Payne film, I'm always guaranteed to be interested in it.

That brings me to his newest movie, Nebraska, which like Payne's other movies, is principally interested in exploring strained relationships. Beautifully shot in black and white, it focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old codger edging up to the line of senility. When he receives one of those mass-mailed sweepstakes notices declaring that he may already have won a million dollars, he becomes determined to get to Lincoln to claim his prize. No amount of explanation or fury from his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) or son David (Will Forte) can dissuade him. David sees an opportunity to spend some time with the father who never had much use for him, and agrees to drive him to a jackpot he knows full-well doesn't exist. Complications arise when they stop over to visit some of Woody's family in his hometown. A lot of eyes become dollar signs when people hear about the sweepstakes, and several feel entitled to a portion of the "winnings" for putting up with a man that has been a drunken crank his entire life.

I found the first section of the movie pretty slow-going. The characters and dialogue were stiff, with people simply announcing their feelings instead of demonstrating any of them. But somewhere along the way, I started really enjoying it. Rather than just enduring a series of awkward family conversations, you begin to see why David wants so desperately to understand his father, and why the contentious relationship between Woody and Kate has endured for so long. And oh yes, about Kate... Squibb turns what could easily have come off as an awful, sour woman into an acidic delight. She's never happier than when listing the failings of the relatives she has triumphantly outlived, and never tires of carping about how her family never does enough for her. You'd think she'd be shrill and irredeemable. Instead, she's a bundle of catty fun.

David is a tougher character to get a handle on. His avoidance of commitment and a past problem with alcohol is hinted at, but is never fully expanded. His wish to spend some bonding time with a father that may not be around (mentally or physically) for much longer is understandable in the grand sense, but arrives a bit suddenly. He has, after all, been living in the same town as his parents for his entire life. None of these issues derail the movie, but as David appears in almost every scene, I feel like I should understand him better than I ultimately do.

This is a slow-paced movie, but I was never bored, despite my problems with the opening act. Bruce Dern has been getting all sorts of raves for his performance, though I'm not sure how difficult it can be for an actor to act addled and taciturn. The script is spare, but deep. The actors range from wooden to enchanting. I've been wondering to myself if I'd give this movie some Oscar gold, were I in charge of such things, and I'm still puzzling it over. That's the thing about Payne movies. They sometimes confuse the hell out of me. In all the best ways.

Nebraska: B


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