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).
Will Forte (#1–10 of 5)
There’s homage, and then there’s the new poster for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which couldn’t be more evocative of David Lynch’s Eraserhead if it featured a lizard-baby’s scissor-stabbed organs. It’s supremely interesting that the folks behind Nebraska turned to the world of Lynch for inspiration, since few would think to connect the surrealist auteur to Payne’s deadpan Americana. But maybe there is something here, beyond these one-sheets’ high-contrast black-and-white, and beyond the shocks of hair that respectively define Jack Nance and Bruce Dern’s characters, that link the filmmakers’ works. Though more darkly and elliptically inclined, Lynch is as much a surveyor of Anytown, USA as Payne will ever be, and the latter has offered his share of bluntly ironic, borderline-Lynchian character quirks. What’s most interesting here is the implication that Nebraska, like Eraserhead, is, on some level, a nightmare.
The men in Alexander Payne’s movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson’s Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter’s wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California’s wine country. Most recently, George Clooney’s Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne’s first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema’s most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn’t alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.
Born in the U.S., but now dividing her time between Los Angeles and Dublin, director Steph Green was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her short film New Boy, a sensitive portrait of a young African lad struggling to settle into a new school in Ireland. The theme of coming to terms with a dramatic life change is once again central in her confident, boldly stylized feature debut Run & Jump.
Set in a picturesque Irish town, the film begins with the return to the family stead of Conor (Edward MacLiam), a 38-year-old carpenter and father of two who’s suffered a damaging stroke, leaving him severely mentally restricted. In response, his spirited wife, Vanetia (Maxine Peake), has brought an American neurophysiologist, Ted Fielding (Will Forte), into the household to observe Conor’s condition and interaction with the family for two months. Welcomed with curious fascination by Vanetia and the children, but greeted with some suspicion by Conor’s extended family, Ted soon finds himself becoming inextricably woven into the family in ways he hadn’t imagined. The unusual, shifting dynamic of the triangulated central relationship makes the film constantly engaging on a narrative level, with Green using the inherent awkwardness of the situation to locate nuanced, character-based humor rather than externally imposing it on the drama.
MacGruber (Jorma Taccone). You might think a full-length feature about MacGruber, Will Forte’s bumbling ’80s action hero, would feel at least an hour too long. Even Steve Carell couldn’t lift his lumbering feature about Maxwell Smart, the ’60s version of MacGruber, off the ground—but maybe he needed Jorma Taccone at the controls.
Saturday Night Life actor/writer/director Taccone, one of the three guys who does those funny videos with Andy Samberg (he also shot a lot of the MacGruber shorts for SNL and is the man behind a Pepsi ad for the Super Bowl), has great sense of comic timing and a deep and gleeful knowledge of comedy conventions and pop-culture icons. In the Q&A after the film, he revealed that he loves late-’80s/early-’90s action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Rambo 3 (“not one or two or four—though four is pretty great too”), and that he and his cast intended their movie to be more of a comic tribute than a spoof.
You probably have to love those movies to embrace this one fully, but for those of us who do, it makes for a wildly entertaining night at the movies. Action movie clichés, like the way people keep telling MacGruber, “I thought you were dead!,” are given just the right emphasis. You laugh at the dick jokes and gay jokes too, partly because they’re cathartic, surfacing and then blowing up all the unacknowledged homoerotic machismo that fuels those movies, but also because Forte does blustery incompetence so well and the editors always know just where to cut. And Michael Bay has taken things so far that you pretty much have to chase your bad guy off a cliff, fire two big guns at him as he goes down, and reduce him to a blackened hole in the ground at the bottom of a canyon if you’re going for laughs. This movie also has the funniest sex scene since the South Park movie with the puppets.