NEBRASKA (2013) Showcases A Father’s and Son’s Journey

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Nebraska posterBlu-Ray Review: NEBRASKA (2013)
By
Michael Arruda

I missed NEBRASKA when it came out in theaters, but I was eager to see it on Blu-ray because as a longtime fan of Bruce Dern, I wanted to see his Oscar-nominated performance.

It was well worth the wait.

In NEBRASKA, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man clearly in the final stages of life, who may or may not be slipping into Alzheimer’s. He lives in Montana with his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb), and his present existence is lost and directionless. The film opens with him wandering along the highway where he’s picked up by the police.

At the police station, Woody tells his son David (Will Forte) that he was walking to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he had won. Woody shows David what he believes to be the notice proving that he’s won a million dollars. In reality, it’s a publishing clearing house letter, and David tries without success to tell his dad that this doesn’t mean he’s won a million dollars, to which Woody responds that it must be true since it says so in the letter.

Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) along with Kate wants to put Woody in a home, but David feels bad for his dad and in a spur of the moment decision, in part because he’s in a rut with his own life and could use the time away, decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David understands that the money isn’t the real issue for Woody. The real issue is his dad sees his life as worthless, and he needs a purpose to get out and do something, in this case to take a road trip to collect his million dollars.

So father and son head off to Nebraska and end up in the town Woody grew up in, where they reunite with Woody’s extended family, his brothers and their adult children, David’s cousins, as well as Woody’s former friends and acquaintances. Of course, when people learn that Woody has “won a million dollars” he becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, even being asked to do a newspaper interview. Soon things take a darker turn as family and friends alike begin to ask Woody for some of his winnings, and one former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), even makes threats against him.

NEBRASKA is a slow-paced slice-of-life movie about life in mid-western America which reflects the sadness and poor economy of the past decade. It certainly paints a less than flattering picture of rural America.

As advertised, Bruce Dern is excellent as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose life has seemingly passed him by. With his mental faculties in a deteriorating state, he’s a sad lonely figure who seems to have made the realization that his life wasn’t much to begin with. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, near the end, Woody tells his son David why the money means so much to him, as he wants to be able to leave something to his children after he’s gone, and he wants to do this because he realizes that without this money, he has nothing to give.

Dern’s performance reminded me of Frank Langella’s similar performance in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012), a film where Langella played an aging father and former jewel thief dealing with a failing memory due to Alzheimer’s, the difference being Langella’s character had more spunk and was still up for the battle. Dern’s Woody is on his last leg. He’s tired, worn out, and aimless, with nothing seemingly to live for other than collecting his million dollars. To Woody, there hasn’t been much in his life worth getting exciting about other than booze. He’s not a character you want to look up to or emulate.

Yet, there’s more to Woody than meets the eye. On their journey together, David learns some things about his father that he never knew before, things that help explain his father’s behavior over the years. David learns that Woody was shot down over Korea, and that when he returned home, he was never the same. David also meets a woman running the local newspaper who tells him that years ago she almost married his dad, but lost out to David’s mother. David seems shocked to learn that another woman would even have feelings towards his dad, let alone be head over heels in love with him.

As David, Will Forte is almost as good as Dern, playing the son who loves his dad and is trying to do right by him, in spite of what he sees as his dad’s efforts to make things as difficult as possible. But unlike the rest of his family, he understands his dad and is always ready to cut him some slack and do what he can to help him.

June Squibb turns in a potent and hilarious performance in her Oscar-nominated role as Woody’s wife Kate. She’s a take-charge no-nonsense woman who’s constantly berating and talking down to her husband. Still, she gets the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie.

Bob Odenkirk, who played the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD (“better call Saul”) is also memorable here as Woody’s oldest son Ross, who sides more with his mom Kate than Woody. And Stacy Keach is sufficiently cold and villainous as the who-needs-a-friend-like-this Ed Pegram, who makes it clear to David that his dad owes him money, and if he doesn’t pay up, there’s going to be trouble.

The entire cast is very good, but the film belongs to Dern, who does a nice job creating the character of Woody Grant, a man in the deep twilight of his years, sad, lost, and barely cognizant of what’s going on in his life, yet he remains sensitive enough to know that the million dollars gives him the opportunity to leave something to his adult sons, which obviously is a value that is important to him. Woody is not a loser. He’s an alcoholic.

Dern also gives Woody a quirkiness that is quite funny. One of his best scenes is when David asks Woody about his relationship with his mom, and Woody admits that he was never really in love with her. He married her because she asked him, and he figured, why the hell not? David is shocked to learn that his parents didn’t even talk about having kids, that the extent of their planning was that Woody “liked to screw.” The scenes with Woody’s brothers and extended family are priceless.

Director Alexander Payne has made another deliberate paced slice-of-life quirky drama that captures American life in a way that is not always flattering, yet always seems heartfelt and sincere, and so does not come across so much as a critique as it does a sad rendering.

While I enjoyed his previous films THE DESCENDANTS (2011) and SIDEWAYS (2004) better than NEBRASKA, in that both these films possessed more energy, I did prefer this one more than his earlier effort ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002). All of these films have been about journeys, as the main characters in these stories take a trip and learn about themselves. The journey in NEBRASKA may be the saddest of all of these, as Dern’s Woody might be the most desperate of all the characters yet in a Payne movie. Yet, the film is not a downer, and the ending to this particular story is certainly satisfying and uplifting.

The screenplay by Bob Nelson tells a memorable story about a man who at first glance seems like a poor candidate to build a story upon, but there’s more to Woody than meets the eye, and it’s these revelations that give both the character and his story some depth. Nelson’s story also has something to say about life in rural America, families, and what it means to be a man. Woody often seems to be fighting not only for his legacy but also for his manhood. He even admits that he drinks because he has to live with David’s mother. In fact, in scenes with Woody’s extended family, all the men sit silently in front of the television, while the women speak actively and aggressively in the next room, as they are clearly the ones pulling all the strings.

NEBRASKA is more than just a story about life in rural America. It’s also a portrait of how families interact, how people age, and how elderly parents and their adult children treat each other. It tells the tale of one man who seems ill-equipped to deal with these things, yet somehow, in the single act of wanting to leave something for his children, he does.

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Frank Langella Memorable in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012)

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Robot and Frank posterStreaming Video Review:  ROBOT & FRANK (2012)

by

Michael Arruda

 

I’ve been a fan of Frank Langella since I first saw him as Dracula in DRACULA (1979), a film I’ve never been all that nuts about, but I liked Langella in it.  I’m always happy to see him in a movie, and he’s the main reason why I checked out ROBOT & FRANK (2012) the other day on Streaming Video.

 

ROBOT & FRANK is a quirky comedy-drama that tells the tale of retired cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) who lives alone away from his family and is dealing with a faulty memory.  His adult son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard)— yes, this story takes place in the near future— to keep him company and to look after him.

 

Frank wants no part of the diminutive white Robot, but Hunter insists.  When Frank discovers that the Robot has no sense of right or wrong, he realizes that he now has the perfect partner, a Robot who can help him pull off heists.

 

His first theft is small-scale, to impress his friend, the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), but later he sets his sights on his wealthy neighbor, a snotty young man who had insulted him at a library function in front of Jennifer.  Frank manages to steal some very expensive jewels.  With his criminal history, Frank is automatically a suspect, even at his age and in his ill mental condition, but Frank is still suave enough to remain one step ahead of the authorities, which he does, much to the annoyance of his family, especially his son Hunter, who constantly feels betrayed by his theft-obsessed father.

 

ROBOT & FRANK may sound goofy, but it’s not.  It’s actually quite subdued and touching.  While the heist storyline is easily the most interesting one in the movie, the story of Frank’s struggles with his family and his memory are both poignant and sad.  On a deeper level, his relationship with the Robot serves as a metaphor for both his relationship with his family and his battle with his faulty memory.  His conversations with the Robot often appear as dialogues with himself, while other times Frank seems to think the Robot is his son and speaks to him in ways that his son Hunter never seems to hear for himself.

 

The Robot definitely serves as an embodiment of Frank’s memory.  When the authorities realize that the Robot’s memory most likely contains evidence of Frank’s crimes, the Robot tells Frank that the only way to protect himself is to erase his memory.  Frank reacts strongly to this suggestion, refusing to do it, haunted both by the prospect of his own diminishing memory and the loss of a friend.

 

There’s also a very poignant scene near the end where the Robot tells Frank that he can’t give up, that he must escape so he can plan his next job, using nearly the exact same words Frank had used earlier when speaking to the Robot. Hearing this, Frank realizes a truth about himself that he had up until this point ignored.  It’s the moment in the film where Frank changes.

 

Through most of the movie, Frank is self-absorbed, thinking only of his next heist, and this self-centered attitude comes at the expense of his relationship with his adult children.  Frank is divorced and has no one else other than his adult children, son Hunter and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler).  When Madison objects to her father’s spending time with a robot, she decides to temporarily move in with him to give him a hand and the benefit of some human companionship, but Frank rejects her generosity, seeing it as intrusive, and he’s often rude and stand-offish towards her.  He treats his son Hunter even worse.  He prefers the company of the Robot because he sees it as a friend, someone who doesn’t judge him or tell him what to do.

 

Frank is interested in Jennifer, the local librarian, but he is unable to make any kind of commitment to her other than seeing her at the library.  When she shows up at his doorstep for dinner at his invitation, he has forgotten that he invited her, and he tells her to come back later, slamming the door on her.

 

The best part of the movie however is watching Frank plan his heists with his partner the Robot. It’s a lot of fun watching Frank prove that he still possesses the skills and talents that he had as a younger man, as they have not deteriorated like his memory.  His rich neighbor is also condescending to him, and so we feel no sympathy for this weasel of a man when Frank rips him off, and we certainly don’t want to see him have the satisfaction of watching the police arrest Frank.  We’re rooting for Frank the entire way, and the wily old thief doesn’t disappoint.

 

Frank wants nothing to do with erasing his Robot pal’s memory, but the Robot tells him that it’s okay, that he’s not really a person.  Langella’s pained expression as he considers this option speaks volumes.  You know he wants no part of it.  To him, the Robot is a person, and even though he doesn’t live and breathe, he should be treated as such.  Frank also resists terminating the Robot’s memory because it hits too close to home, as he’s struggling to keep his own memory from fading.

 

Frank Langella is terrific in the lead role as Frank.   In spite of the rough way he treats his adult kids, Frank really comes off as a sympathetic character, and a lot of this has to do with Langella’s performance.  He’s crafty when he has to be, and he’s funny more often than not, especially when dealing with his snobbish neighbor Jake (Jeremy Strong).  Langella also makes Frank a sympathetic character, as you can feel the angst he experiences at losing his memory.  He’s also no sap.  When he’s cold and cruel to his son Hunter, he does this with no regrets.

 

The supporting cast is also very good.  Both James Marsden and Liv Tyler make their marks as Frank’s children, Hunter and Madison.  Marsden is especially good at showing the pain he feels towards his cold self-centered father, who has never been there for his son.  This is a much better pairing between Marsden and Langella than when they starred together in the misfire thriller THE BOX (2009) several years ago.  X-MEN fans will remember Marsden as Cyclops in the X-MEN movies. He also was on the TV show 30 ROCK as Tina Fey’s boyfriend Criss.

 

Susan Sarandon adds class and style as Frank’s love interest, Jennifer.  She’s also involved in a plot twist later in the movie that honestly didn’t do a whole lot for me, as I preferred the story without this revelation.

 

Robot is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, and he’s fine, although one thing that bothered me was that he sounded an awful lot like Hal from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and so I kept expecting him to say something sinister.  The actual person in the robot suit was 4’ 11’’ actor Rachael Ma.

 

Jeremy Strong is also very good as Frank’s annoying neighbor Jake.  He gets no sympathy when Frank takes him to the cleaners.

 

ROBOT AND FRANK tells a poignant story that is at times heartwarming, sad, and humorous.  I really enjoyed the thoughtful screenplay by Christopher D. Ford.  The character study of aged burglar Frank and his friendship with the Robot held my interest throughout.

 

Director Jake Schreier gives this movie a deliberate pace that matches the unhurried speed at which Frank himself moves, except of course when he flees the police in a speedy car.  I also enjoyed how the camera often stayed at length on Frank’s face, so we could see clearly the emotions Langella gave the character.

 

All in all, ROBOT AND FRANK is a very satisfying movie.  If you’re a fan of Frank Langella, you’ll love it, and if you enjoy stories about people dealing with aging, and the pressures that go along with it, especially in terms of family and memory loss, and the will to recapture one’s talents and skills from one’s youth, you’ll find ROBOT AND FRANK a rewarding experience.

 

It’s a story you won’t forget.

 

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