'Nebraska' melds melancholy and humor in film homage to heartland

Wed Nov 13, 2013 8:06am EST
 
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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As director Alexander Payne sees it, his latest film "Nebraska" is about a dying man whose son takes him into Hades to meet all the specters of the past.

Oh, and it's a comedy, despite that dire synopsis - one that revels in lunkhead cousins who embody how awful extended family can be and in an elderly wife who lifts her skirt over a former paramour's gravestone to show him what he missed.

That push and pull between pathos and hilarity is familiar to fans of Payne's previous films like high school parody "Election," wine country sojourn "Sideways" and Hawaiian family dissection "The Descendants" - the last two of which won him best writing Oscars.

"It is hard for me to put a label on what I do. It's dramatic and it's funny," Payne told Reuters ahead of the film's opening in U.S. theaters on Friday. "Yes, I seek to criticize and I seek to praise."

Family, the elderly, small town life in Payne's home state of Nebraska and Midwestern values are all run through the Payne lens, skewered and exalted in equal measure.

While the film conjures up Payne's previous work, "Nebraska" also explores new territory. For one, Payne shot the film in black and white, a rarity in modern-day cinema but a good vehicle for the stark Nebraska landscapes and weathered faces.

And then he cast Bruce Dern, best known for villainous supporting characters, in a complex lead role that earned the 77-year-old the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Dern is Woody, an alcoholic father verging on senility who believes he has won $1 million in a "mega sweepstakes" if only he can collect the prize in his home state of Nebraska, 750 miles away. He is taking stock of an unfulfilled life, but this prize could be a late grab for greatness.   Continued...

 
Director Alexander Payne poses next to the poster for his film as he arrives for a gala screening of his new film "Nebraska" at the AFI Fest 2013 in Hollywood November 11, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Prouser