I made a real effort this year to watch the majority of the Awards-Season darlings. This, in particular, is probably a movie I would never have watched if it hadn’t received the nominations it did. The marketing campaign didn’t make it look all that interesting, and the last Alexander Payne directed movie I saw was the Descendants, and while that was interesting – I would be just fine never seeing it again.
I also saw Sideways, which he directed, and hated that movie. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this – especially since it’s in black and white.
I was very surprised. I really enjoyed this movie. It’s exceptionally well done, and the black and white helps to demonstrate the beauty of the Great Plains in winter, as well as the bleakness and desperation of the landscape – which is somewhat reflected in Bruce Dern’s character.
Woody Grant is an aging alcoholic who just received a magazine subscription sweepstakes offer in the mail. He thinks he just won $1 million, but in order to collect it, he has to head from Billings, Montana to Lincoln Nebraska. After much arguing with his wife and disbelief from his two sons, one of the sons, David, finally realizes he could use a change of scenery as well as some quality time with his father, so they head out on a road trip to Lincoln, stopping in his father’s hometown of Hawthorne on the way.
It’s a very simple story, and the surprise for me was exactly how funny it is. I expected it to be touching, and it is, but I was not expecting to laugh out loud as often as I did. Payne is exceptional at character studies, and using the master work of Bruce Dern, this movie becomes a funny and touching character study.
- Bruce Dern delivers what I would consider the performance of a lifetime as Woody. It’s a very understated and quiet performance, with a lot of the perfection in the non-verbals. Whether or not Woody is beginning to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s is not addressed, he’s simply a doddering old man, determined to get his prize so that he can buy a new truck and leave something to his sons. I particularly love his looks when they visit the house he grew up in – again, not much dialogue, but a fantastic performance.
- Will Forte surprises everyone with his performance as David. Or maybe it’s not really a surprise that he’s this good in a drama, maybe it was inevitable. I have always thought comedians are better at Drama than drama actors (dramadians?) are at comedy. Forte is perfect in this as an exasperated son trying to reconnect with his father. Also – his final encounter with his dad’s former friend is fantastic.
- June Squibb has been nominated for all kinds of awards for her performance as Woody’s wife, Kate. I think everyone expected the nominations for Dern, and even for Forte, but she was – is – the surprise of this movie. Kate is a bitch – honestly, there’s no other way to put it, but she loves her family, and loves her husband fiercely. She has several truly hilarious moments, and was really irritatingly wonderful.
- Bob Odenkirk continues to expand his wheelhouse as well as audiences expectations of him with a wonderful performance as local newsman and other son Ross. He and Forte play off each other well, and they get some truly fantastic scenes together. In particular, the scene where they decide to ‘retrieve’ their father’s air compressor was equal parts sweet and hilarious.
- Stacy Keach plays Woody’s childhood friend Ed Pegram. His performance is very good, because definitely by the end I wanted to slap him. He, and others in the town, once finding out about Woody’s “fortune” suddenly find a lot of reasons that Woody owes them money.
- Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson play Woody’s brother and sister-in-law in Hawthorne where Woody and David stop, then Kate and Ross come down to spend a weekend in an impromptu family reunion. The scenes in the house between all the Grant brothers are still (I mean that literally, there is almost no movement), and very entertaining.
Of all the Awards-Season movies I have watched this year, this was one of the ones I enjoyed the most. It absolutely is a very actor-y, Oscar-y type film, but it goes beyond that to be funny and charming. The cinematography is stunning, and is actually really elevated by the black and white (I never thought I would say that). It’s still not a comedy – be ready for that, it does have many funny moments, but I would not call it a comedy. The performances are brilliant, and the end is absolutely wonderful. See it, it’s well worth it.
7 out of 10: Gained points for Forte and Odenkirk and that air compressor, one of my favorite scenes. Lost points for Kate being so blunt, but then gained points for Kate being so blunt… Gained points for the ending, and what David finally is able to give his Dad, and lost points for the two cousins and how mean they were. “Two days from Billings!”
Bonus Video 1: Clerks – the other black and white movie I really liked. “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
Bonus Video 2: The Burbs – A bizarrely hilarious Tom Hanks movie that features Bruce Dern.
Bonus Video 3: Cast interviews: