I’ve been selling Nebraska to people as “a charming version of Fargo without the violence”. That gets attention fairly quickly.
Alexander Payne’s drama, however, is more quaint than quirky. Nebraska’s prominent road trip involving a distracted father Woody (played by Bruce Dern) and his patiently courteous son David (played by Will Forte) coasts along flat landscapes. The two converse about the past and the exciting current possibilities of million dollar winnings Woody received in the mail. The relationship between Dern and Forte is just one of the many likeable building blocks to this heavenly appealing film.
Practically everyone doubts Woody’s grand prize, saying that it’s a sham. Woody’s wife Kate (played by June Squibb) is also part of the crowd, often reminding her dullard husband of his unhelpful, checked-out personality.
David has a feeling that Woody’s prize is bologna too, but he can’t help but go along with his father’s happiness. David doesn’t hope to see his Dad fail. He’s going along for the ride because he shares the same sort of dream chasing. He even tells his mother he just wants to give his old man hope.
Payne shows his audience how far different types of hereditary characteristics can travel. We meet the men of the Grant family throughout the movie. The clan can be often seen together moderately stimulated by television while hesitantly trying to make small talk. During these moments, we observe that David – while taking on his father’s traits – can see the pattern.
Nebraska is wise, but also very funny. Screenwriter Bob Nelson understands the nature of telling dry readings, and Payne knows perfectly well how to direct his actors in accordance to the script.
Once Dern and Forte are set in scenarios that cause them to put their mission on hold, the movie turns into a collection of vignetted character driven pieces. We visit a cemetery where Kate calls out the dead. She remembers the flaws over strengths, but never with cynicism. Another scene has David and brother Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk) retrieving “stolen” equipment and leaving their worried parents to cover for them. Actually, this sneaky sequence plays out as a cuter version of Sideways’ unforgettable wallet sting – also directed by Payne.
Nebraska doesn’t feel like a movie that pretentiously puts its story aside, but rather understands that development – not comedy – is the main priority. We see Forte and Dern go through extensive characterizations. Like Forte’s David, Nelson and Payne are patient with how the pieces play out, making each step convincing. This is what separates the drama from other family adventures that follow a routine of “drive, stop, make the audience laugh, drive again”.
The cinematography is also a stand out. It’s beautifully shot in black-and-white giving the composed film an antiqued look. The shooting style adds to the film’s plainness without making the movie appear drab itself.
You often hear people describing a filmmaker’s movie as “a film with a warm heart and a kind soul”, and it couldn’t be more true with Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s film had me smiling throughout and I was quite swept up by how honest the film was being with its bare portrayal of a family tree rooted in the outskirts of Americana. It’s touching and delightful. I dare you not to be grinning by the final frames.
If The Guilt Trip does anything right from beginning to end, it’s the casting. Not only do Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play off one another well, but they make a very convincing mother-son team.
It’s easy to believe Rogen as an embarrassed hard worker who tries to separate himself from his overbearing mother, and Streisand takes hold of that smothering role with great effect. She’s irritating at times, but that just means her performance is working.
But, what Dan Fogelman’s screenplay is missing is a reason to care about these characters and the road trip they embark on. We understand Rogen’s Alex is having troubles pitching an organic house cleaner to companies and we see Streisand’s Joyce trying to maintain a healthy relationship with her son. However, the film merely pitches those two motivations to audiences and doesn’t supply any support to keep us interested.
This lack of caring in The Guilt Trip goes on for about 35-40 minutes – or, what feels like that duration. This span could’ve been shorter, but I honestly couldn’t tell you while watching it.
The film rolls along to a scene where the duo stop off at a steakhouse and Joyce is handed the challenge of completing a massive dinner under an hour. If she wolfs down the meal by that time, it’s free. If not, it’s $100.
Having a good idea where this scene was going, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to it. I found myself pondering, “I wonder if she’s going to finish that steak…”
And, then I had an A-HA moment. This was the first time The Guilt Trip had asked me to care about anything going on. And, I was going with it. It was a shred of a climactic event. It’s a steak dinner, for goodness sakes! But, it’s all I needed to be brought back into the comedy.
From there, Anne Fletcher’s road movie becomes more tolerable. More jokes and banter land on their feet all leading up to a sincere conclusion that surprisingly doesn’t feel too sentimental. The Guilt Trip isn’t completely saved by the end, but it does qualify as harmless fluff.
It’s not surprising to see Rogen and Streisand also act as executive producers on the comedy. It explains why there’s so much amusing off-the-cuff improv and diva milking. But, what caught me off guard is Lorne Michaels’ credit as a producer. With the Streisand character occasionally coming across as a sketch persona, maybe the Saturday Night Live creator thought this was a good enough time to make Coffee Talk: The Motion Picture.