Bruce Dern has been one of the richest mysteries in Hollywood’s last three decades. If you ask people why he all-but-disappeared from major movie roles, they can’t really tell you why. That’s even true of his daughter, the wonderful actress Laura Dern. I know because I asked her that once in a telephone interview and as articulate and candid as she was, she really didn’t have an answer.
That’s been true for Dern no matter how great a character actor he was. We are, after all, talking about the man who shot John Wayne in Mark Rydell’s “The Cowboys” and walked off into the sea forever after losing Jane Fonda to Jon Voight in Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home.”
The heartening return of Bruce Dern to major American movies is only one of the reasons Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” enjoys a reputation so much better than it deserves. The other reason the movie has become one of the year’s most overrated is how magnificently estheticized it is. By the time you finish with Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black and white cinematography of Midwestern flatlands and gray skies, and Kevin Tent’s graceful editing of those images, it’s almost impossible to think of the film as the condescending and snide thing it really is underneath that exterior so redolent of photographers Walker Evans and the rest of the WPA documentarians, not to mention the current photography of David Plowden.
Papamichael and Tent are longtime collaborators of writer/director Payne. Tent, in fact, goes back beyond “Sideways” to Payne’s first major film “Election.” Tent, from Marilla, is the brother of Lauren Tent, the education director of the CEPA Gallery and former assistant of the late Buffalo architectural and industrial photographer Patricia Bazelon. (That is Lauren Tent in the photo with Michelle Obama as she gave an award recently to CEPA student Jose Lagare in Washington, D.C.)
The story Payne is telling in “Nebraska” is about an old man in Billings, Mont., who gets a Publisher’s Sweepstakes letter informing him he’s won a million dollars. In Payne’s tale, he has all the credulity senility can bestow, so he decides to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Neb., to collect. After truly unpleasant arguments with the old boy’s wife, his son decides to drive him to Lincoln in his Subaru wagon. So it’s a road movie, senile father and loving, sad-sack son (played ever-so-gently by “Saturday Night Live’s” Will Forte).
There’s a large family reunion before the close. And a good deal more from the grown son’s viper-tongued and truly foul-spirited mother.
Most of all, there are a lot of rural folks, including their family in Nebraska, giving us a grimly condescending and smug portrait of Middle America’s old and fat and befuddled masses yearning to be rich. After a lot of low-level snobbery about Middle America mixed with stunning photography (Payne, it’s important to say, is from Nebraska), it all sweetens a bit and stashes condescension away at the end. If it didn’t, it would have been insufferable, despite Dern and the look of it.
What Payne seems to have been trying to do here was done once magnificently by David Lynch in “The Straight Story.” It starred Richard Farnsworth and it was a film adaptation of the true story of an old man named Alvin Straight who rode a John Deere lawn mower 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. “The Straight Story” is a great, underrated and sadly forgotten American film. “Nebraska” is a film that wants to be great. And, in its black and white way, looks as if it is. Its heart though – to the degree that it has one – is otherwise occupied.