Thursday, October 10, 2013


by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

Alexander Payne has once again taken a simple subject and made it into a superlative film.

This is a  115 minute road trip comedy about a father and son going through the Midwest, where the relationship between the actors is so good the audience actually believes they are family.

The story of the Grant family of Hawthorne Nebraska, the story focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), now transplanted to Billings Montana.  Having received a letter saying he's a million dollar winner in a sweepstakes, Woody, stubborn and taciturn, repeatedly heads off to the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska.

His efforts are thwarted by a caring son David (Will Forte from Saturday Night Live) who tries to explain that Woody hasn't actually won the million dollars but it's all a solicitation to order magazines.

Dern, who is now 77, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival  He is superb as Woody, who can barely shuffle down the road and needs alcohol on a consistent basis to fuel his daily endeavors.

Unable to convince his father of the reality of the situation and it with his mother Kate Grant (June Squibb) threatening to institutionalize his father, it falls to David to agree to take his father on the 750 mile journey to Lincoln.

With humorous and poignant events happening along the way, there is of course the obligatory visit to the family in Hawthorne, and the stellar performances by Rance Howard (father of Ron Howard) who plays Woody's brother Ray, and Stacey Keach who plays Woody's former business partner, Ed Pegram.  We see the surfacing of envy and greed as family and friends, who believe that Woody is a millionaire, come looking for money.

Shot in black and white Cinemascope, Payne gives realistic and hauntingly beautiful shots of small town USA.  The scenes of the Midwest are real, not staged --- how else could you get the mountains and the prairies that appear?  Payne, who comes from Omaha, knows both the scenery and the temperament of the area.  When he needed a "dive bar" on a country road, he traveled the country roads until he found the bar and then convinced the regular patrons to be in the bar scene.

Throughout the humor and heartbreak is the theme of David, the son, continually striving to give his aging father some dignity.  Also important are the realistic and universal theme that Payne confronts about children watching their parents grow older in an aging society.

Perhaps the reason the film has attracted such attention is that the actors have a relationship that mimics the relationships in the film.  It's almost as if they really are a family, with all the dysfunction, the pathos and the humor that are portrayed in the film.  From interviews and press conferences it would appear that this was a very harmonious group and the relationships they built carried over into the film, or was it the other way around?