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November 28, 2022

Nebraska: Movie Review

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie said:

Sand and I have been trying to get to see some of the Oscar nominated pictures so that we can make judgments about who the front runner should be. We'd now seen three of the nine -- Gravity, Captain Phillips, and American Hustle, which is the early and clear favorite. Another on the list of nominees is playing at the local movie house, so I asked Sand if she wanted to see Her.

"No!" She was rather empathic.

"How come?"

"It's got the "M-word" in it."

I pondered that for a moment and took a guess. "Money?"

"No."

"Murder?"

"No."

"Monica Bellucci?"

She just rolled her eyes.

"Asian muffins?" I asked hopefully.

"No, you jerk. Masturbation."

"Oh," I said quietly.

Piker Press columnist JH Mae recently had an interesting piece about intimacy in which she posits that love is "sharing disgusting secrets you can't tell anyone else. Being yourself, in all your burping, farting, oozing glory, every day of your life." There is no denying that there is a certain truth to that. I would add, however, that that kind of intimacy is invited and allowed, if not encouraged, by the partners. Movies are brash -- they impose a certain intimacy on the viewer. They can, like The King's Speech , share a confidence and allow you to witness the otherwise inaccessible personal lives of the characters. Then again, like The Black Swan, a movie can tear away its own inhibitions and those of the viewer and blur the line between art and voyeurism. As with the intimacy that Ms. Mae talks about, movies will invite people into their world, but the audience must decide to be led there.

In a more perfect world, there would not be disgusting, prurient or purely tasteless movies made, not because they are prohibited, but because they would not be wanted. In the meantime, nobody forces me to cough up the price of admission to movies I don't want to see.

Fortunately for us, Nebraska was also playing at the theater, so off we went. Nebraska is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor.

"After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail," the movie's official website states, "a cantankerous father (Bruce Dern) thinks he's struck it rich, and wrangles his son (Will Forte) into taking a road trip to claim the fortune. Shot in black and white across four states, Nebraska tells the stories of family life in the heartland of America."

That's true only if "cantankerous" means old and addled alcoholic and "family life" is understood as dysfunctional relationships.

There is good movie making here. There is a deep, richly layered story. It is a story of a man at the end of his life, struggling to make sense of it all; it is a story of life in the Great Plains; it is a story of what it means to be family; there is a story of how money corrupts; and yes, there is the story of a road trip. There is also some very fine acting. Bruce Dern in the lead role as Woody manages at times to be the senile old man, and at others, to display a haunting, sorrowful depth to the character simply with posture and facial expression. He justifiably has been nominated for Best Actor. The director's decision (presumably his) to shoot in black and white provides a haunting feel to the look of the film. It is like a collection of charcoal drawings of the land and the people of Middle America.

To be sure, this is a film that may not appeal to a lot of people. It is a raw story. Woody is an old man at the end of his life, and he is a burden and an embarrassment to his family. Woody's wife is a vulgar, sharp-tongued woman who spares no one in her criticisms. Most of Woody's family is depicted as either gold diggers or simpletons. It is not a flattering picture of people, yet it felt uncomfortably familiar to me, and that is a little unsettling.

And yet for all the bleakness that there is in this story, it is ultimately a comedy. When we laugh at our mistakes, writer Katherine Mansfield said, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them, and so it is immensely important that we learn to laugh at ourselves. That perhaps is the achievement of Nebraska. Like Ms. Mae's burping, farting, oozing glory, Nebraska might just be a film about the disgusting secrets that we share with the ones we love most.

I don't think there will be any Oscars for this movie -- the competition is a bit too tough. However, it deserves its nominations, and it is a film that is definitely worth seeing.

Sand said:

"... uncomfortably familiar to me ..." Bernie said, and I would agree with him after seeing Nebraska.

This is a good movie, make no mistake. Bruce Dern and Will Forte have brought great performances as a father and son who have drifted so far from each other that they can barely communicate.

But a comedy? Well, not to me. There was never anything amusing to me when my mother's neighbors or the Pennsylvania State Police would call me to tell me that mom had been found wandering along the main road out of her town, senility convincing her that every day was Sunday and that she had to walk to church. Watching the old dad in Nebraska stubbornly and mistakenly trudging along the highway just brought home again the frustration we feel when our parents are in decline and denial, and the only recourse we have is to let them endanger themselves and others, or figure out a way to pen them up.

Also not funny was the gathering of family buzzards hoping for money when old dad Woody let slip that he had won a million dollars. There's nothing cute about watching your relatives turn into greed-infested strangers right before your eyes. I've seen that, too.

At the end, I found the son's solution to be a bit of a sugar coating, too much like: We'll throw money and goodies at the problem and everything will be okay. Nevertheless, I think that the movie's greatest strength is to raise an awareness that we all have to deal with the end-of-life issues, sooner or later, and that we can try to do it with love and compassion, instead of anger and disgust.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-02-03
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