Produced by Blue Lake Media Fund and Bona Fide ProductionsDirected by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Bob Nelson
Distributed by Paramount Vantage
Produced by Atlas Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures
Directed and written by David O. Russell
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Few directors would have taken the chances Alexander Payne does with his latest film, Nebraska, a study of age in decay. After winning critical respect with his provocative independent films Citizen Ruth, Election, and Sideways, Payne achieved commercial success with About Schmidt and The Descendants. Now he has given us a bleak comedy about aging in the heartland—not a likely barn burner. This low-key, poignant film, shot in black and white in real-life locations, reminded me of Italian neorealist films of the 1950’s. While not as wrenching as Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) or as ruthless as Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), Nebraska is as startling as both with its remorseless eavesdropping into the lives of nobodies who will never rise above their anonymity. Unless, that is, they can bring themselves to accept the advice the thoroughly alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) gives his son David (Will Forte) in a bar one afternoon. Dave has just ordered a soda when his father barks at him, “Have a beer! Be somebody!” What kind of body, he didn’t say, but it’s unlikely to be distinguished.
The film begins with Woody, who is the same age as Dern (77), trudging up an interstate entrance ramp in Billings, Montana. He’s on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, by foot to collect the prize money he thinks he’s won in a magazine-subscription sweepstakes, the kind Publishers Clearing House sends out with a written announcement carefully contrived by legal wordsmiths to tell the receiver he or she has won a million dollars, without really saying that at all. Woody’s never been a close reader. Now addled by booze and age, he tends to take matters at face value. Or, to put it differently, he believes what he wants to believe.
A kindly state trooper takes the old man home, where his two sons debate what should be done. Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Dave realize they will never persuade their father to give up his quest while he remains above ground. After all, he wants to buy a truck, despite having lost his license for impaired driving a few years earlier. They have only two choices: put him in an old-age home, or take him to Lincoln and let him discover the truth. Ross, not given to kindness for his wastrel father, is for number one. The milder Dave chooses the second option. The journey will take at least four or five days and, he reasons, give him a chance to settle unresolved matters with the old man before he dies.
On the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit his brother, Ray (Rance Howard), and the fun begins.
Although they haven’t seen each other for over a dozen years, the brothers haven’t anything to say. When Woody walks in, Ray continues watching television so dazedly that he barely acknowledges his visitor. “What’s new?” he asks, eyes riveted to the screen. There’s not a flicker of interest in his voice.
Woody answers with heroic economy, “Not much. With you?”
“Nothing,” comes the response. The scene is a comic riff on Midwestern taciturnity. These are men who have lived lives of quiet desperation so long that they no longer realize they’re desperate. Even if they did, why kick up a fuss about it now? Better to have another beer and change the channel to another football game. The only talkers in the room are Ray’s two sons, an obese Tweedledee and Tweedledum pair of wiseacres who can’t resist raking their gentle cousin over the coals. One asks the questions standard at family gatherings: “How long did you take to get here?” When Dave says two days, they look at each other knowingly and snicker.
“How big’s your engine?” the other wants to know. This stumps Dave, to the brothers’ great amusement.
Having had enough, Dave slips out of his uncle’s house to look into his father’s background. He stops by the office of the local newspaper, where he unexpectedly meets Woody’s old girlfriend, an elderly but vibrant woman who tells him she might have been his mother but for her decision not to “go round the bases” with Woody while they were in high school. She doesn’t say so, but clearly, Dave’s mother, Kate (June Squibb), did reach home plate with Woody and thereby snagged the doubtful prize he was then and has been ever since.
Clearly, Kate was never one to be coy. When she visits the Hawthorne Catholic cemetery, she discomfits her sons by pointing to headstones and making rude remarks. “This girl was nice, but what a slut.” When she comes upon the grave of an old boyfriend, she upbraids him posthumously for having been concerned more with his cows than with her. Then she hikes her skirt over her waist and cackles, “Here’s what you missed.”
Woody is even less discreet. Despite Dave’s warning, he tells one and all he’s won a million. This makes him a celebrity and also a target. Some of the customers regard him with awe; others with ill-disguised envy. His former auto-repair shop partner claims Woody owes him money. Over the course of a few boozy hours, the amount of the debt rises from a few hundred to $10,000. And, as you would expect, the Tweedle brothers insist they want to drive Woody to Lincoln, 200 miles away to help him collect his winnings.
What Woody makes of all this is unclear. He seems befuddled most of the time, and Payne is too honest to have him snap out of his reveries to confront his predators, as almost any other director would have done. Dern stays in character throughout. Whatever he once was, he’s now the idiot Kate keeps saying he is. Nevertheless, Dave learns some heretofore unsuspected truths that alter his assessment of his old man. Although Payne has chosen austerity as his watchword in this movie, he risks a moment of sentiment to leave us a clear indication of what Dave will do with his new understanding.
The dream of easy wealth informs American Hustle also, but with this difference. Rather than waiting for chance to smile on them, David O. Russell’s characters prefer to take unholy action to ensure their winnings. To tell his tale of deception and greed in the land of the free, Russell has fictionalized real events from 35 years ago, when the FBI set in motion Abscam, an operation designed to catch elected public officials at their chosen trade: serving themselves rather than their constituents.
The narrative focuses on Abscam’s chief architect, Melvyn Rosenberg, who for reasons we can only guess appears as Irving Rosenfeld. (To play the role Christian Bale rendered himself so tubby that even his hands look swollen.)
The film is at once seductive and disgusting, much like the perfume Rosenfeld’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) finds so enchanting. “It’s really beautiful, and at the same time it smells like rotten flowers, garbage, you know what I mean,” she remarks to the wife of Irving’s latest mark, His Honor Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner, nearly eclipsed under an astonishingly elevated pompadour). The yoking of sham beauty with the richly rotten perfectly expresses the world in which Rosenfeld has chosen to live.
The film zips along, showing us how Rosenfeld becomes increasingly mired in his various pursuits, one of which is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose fashion taste runs to waist-deep décolletage and slate-blue eye shadow. When Rosenfeld first sees her, he’s instantly smitten. In her late 30’s, she’s the incarnation of tawdry glamour and festering ambition that excites Irving to no end. Of course, she joins Irving in his con artistry. Irving’s mainstay is scamming the psychically and financially halt and lame. He pretends to help these losers acquire bank loans through his many contacts in the financial industry, charging them his standard nonrefundable fee of $5,000. When Sydney pushes him to expand his operation, the FBI takes note. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a manic agent who, like many people in law enforcement, harbors a desire to participate in the exploits of the people he pursues, sees promise in Irving. He gains leverage over Irving and Sydney by arresting them and then presenting them with a get-out-of-jail-free card: He wants them to help him catch corrupt politicos in flagrante delicto. Irving comes up with an angle, a sheikh sugar daddy, and they’re off to the races, successfully enticing congressmen, state senators, and Camden’s mayor. Then they take a step too far. Richie wants to bring down Victor Tellegio, a mafia kingpin (played by Robert De Niro). To do so, he retains a Mexican to pose as the sheikh. But Tellegio smells a rat, and the con men seem headed for a fatal rendezvous with concrete.
One of the film’s conceits is the stupidity of the con artists. Their scams are so transparent that you can’t believe anyone would fall for them. But, dumb as he is, Rosenfeld knows better. People, he remarks, believe what they want to believe. As a small-time confidence operator fleecing the unsophisticated, he had always relied on this simple truth. He didn’t have to bother with custom-made suits from Dunhill and expensive office furnishings. He depended on his air of confidence and his victims’ credulity. When Richie pushes him into the big leagues, however, his confidence begins to falter. He becomes visibly more reflective, even recessive. Richie, on the other hand, becomes more manically assertive by the hour. The agent even trespasses on Irving’s sexual preserve, making moves on Sydney, the embodiment of corruption. Where this is headed, I’ll leave you to discover.
It’s the actors and costume design that make this movie hum. Hair is an especially important feature. A Ph.D. dissertation could and probably will be written about the implications of the film’s various coiffures. In the opening scene, Irving delicately arranges his majestic combover. Richie spends a full quarter of his camera time in curlers to give him the cachet of modified cornrows. And as one would suspect, Sydney is no slouch with the curlers either. We’re in the 70’s disco glowland, in which men weren’t fully dressed unless their gold chains hung glimmering in their chest hair tastefully exposed between steroidal collars and Brobdingnagian lapels. And women weren’t decently attired unless their breasts were left to sway braless within their acrylic halters.
If you remember the 70’s you should see this film. If you don’t, it’s absolutely required. By the way, shortly after Abscam put its culprits behind bars, our heroes in Congress passed laws to limit the FBI from perpetrating such injustices against their dignity again.