Lately, the conversations I’ve been having with people about Alexander Payne’s Nebraska keep coming back to the same thing: Payne’s depictions of Midwesterners, which, in his latest, are more ostensibly—and, to many, offensively—cartoonish than ever before. I’ve heard some folks describe the characters in Nebraska as loving renderings of those in and around the auteur’s home state, while others have announced outright that Payne’s employment of stereotypes make his movie truly hateable. I personally found that the deplorable decisions Payne does make (such as planting his viewers inside a g-darn TV set, and making them gawk at lounging Nebraskans with voyeuristic judgment), are eventually alleviated by the layered character revealed by the film itself. But what matters in regard to this movie’s awards potential is whether the naysayers have loud enough voices to counter the din of approval. And, at this point, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Even critics and pundits left squirmy by Payne’s captured-in-grayscale rednecks have largely not allowed the caveat to ruin the party, and as for industry types, most seem over the moon about Payne’s well-intended, yet characteristically barbed, heart. Moreover, enthusiasm for the film’s performances, particularly that of “long-overdue” and “under-appreciated” Bruce Dern, appears strong enough to eclipse pesky, nitpicky hang-ups (you should have seen the film’s rapturous reception at the New York Film Festival).
A buzzworthy turn overshadowing a movie’s failings is a trend this Oscar season (more on Dallas Buyers Club later this week), and it’s certain to work in Dern’s favor in the Best Actor race. Dern, who won the top prize in the same category at Cannes, will likely lose to someone like Chiwetel Ejiofor or your apparent frontrunner, Robert Redford, but he deserves the recognition you can bet he’s going to receive. The 77-year-old character actor, who has more than 80 films to his credit (do the math there), should join Redford as one of two contenders whose present performance restraint and overall career longevity will win him great favor with voters. The key achievement of Dern’s role as Woody, the hopelessly optimistic, supposed recipient of a hefty sum of cash, is that he never clues you in to whether Woody is mentally slipping or not. His performance is one propelled by enigma, and surrounded by the skepticism of yokels brought to life by the likes of Stacy Keach, Will Forte, and June Squibb, the latter another all-but-definite nominee. At this stage, it looks like Squibb will be filling the shrill slot in the Supporting Actress field, which, if we’re going by the Estelle Parsons/Renée Zellweger/Melissa Leo rule, makes her the favorite to nab the trophy. Squibb’s oft-grotesque and gutter-mouthed wise-cracking is what’s going to command Oscar’s attention, but it’s the eventual tenderness she abruptly reveals that makes her a deserving candidate.
In a different year, Payne may have been a serious Best Director threat for finally making a slice of Americana that’s even eponymously devoted to his stomping grounds. But this is fast becoming one of the year’s most competitive categories, especially since Scorsese is officially back in the game for The Wolf of Wall Street. A safer bet for a nod is Bob Nelson’s Original Screenplay, which Payne, although uncredited, seems to have graced with his own signature. And the director should take some comfort in the probability that Nebraska will land in the Best Picture lineup, not least because its probable nominees and overarching pedigree are very Academy-friendly. Beyond the major fields, odds are you won’t find much of an Oscar presence, although some prognosticators are holding out hope for Kevin Tent, a prior Editing nominee for The Descendants. What voters ought to pay attention to is the Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, and hardly because he shot the film in black and white. A longtime talent in the biz, Papamichael works with Payne to load his meticulous frames with symbols and iconography, winding up with some of the year’s most layered and confident atmospheric imagery. That is, apart from the whole TV-set thing.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Actor, Bruce Dern; Best Supporting Actress, June Squibb; Best Original Screenplay.
Possibilities: Best Director, Alexander Payne; Best Film Editing; Best Supporting Actor, Will Forte.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Cinematography.