Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The "Nebraska" Trailer Introduces Bruce Dern into the Best Actor Race

Left to right: Bruce Dern and Will Forte
While I made my preseason predictions a few weeks ago, I still feel like some contenders have yet to form themselves in the public consciousness. The most notable example of this is director Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants called Nebraska. While I had posted statistics about the film and didn't rank it high, save for a nod for Best Actor for Bruce Dern, I am still eagerly awaiting the film as well as the trailer. Up until this morning, little was known about the film. Now with the release of some clips and the official trailer, it looks like Payne is back with a film reminiscent of About Schmidt. 

The last time that we saw Payne, he was in the middle of his most critically acclaimed run with The Descendants. Nominated for five awards and winning Best Adapted Screenplay, it was the only potential upset for front runner and inevitable winner The Artist. His portrayal of a family bonding over a comatose wife was heart wrenching and strung with sincerity in Hawaii. In many ways, the move to Nebraska seems almost like a 180.

This isn't to say that he hasn't tackled more complicated relationships. With films like Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt, he explored different bonds that go through a rapid change in ways that are often comedic yet effectively dramatic. In many ways, he is the successor to the James L. Brooks style of directing, and with his latest, he is proving to make an intriguing entry, even if it looks a little understated and retreading. 

Here's the trailer:

Admittedly, the trailer seems a little tame and uninteresting. I would recommend checking out the clips for a better example of tone (here). According to IMDb, the plot is:
"An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize."
As a fan of Payne, I will probably see it regardless on if the trailer sells me. It doesn't. I will admit that it could be that the black and white style doesn't do justice to the trailers (see also: Frances Ha), but the final product could be great. There is plenty of understated humor here, but nothing particularly jumps out. The universe seems oddball enough to intrigue, but for those familiar with About Schmidt, this does feel like familiar territory.

It premiered at Cannes to mix reviews, including Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York), who called it "A rank exercise in hicksploitation sentimentalism" to Matt Patches (Film.com) praising Dern as a "father character in is in a devastating decline" and that the film is "Stunning stuff." Probably the review that summizes the opinions so far and one that ties most to this entry is from Kaleem Aftab (The Independent), who claimed that "This comedy is hit and miss but will probably earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination."

While I would like to think that the Academy only elects great films to the Best Picture race, I have pointed out time again that it isn't true. The most recent example is Silver Linings Playbook: a lighthearted comedy that got more praise than it deserved. Even The Descendants had an odd amount of love for being a little too safe. But of course the thing to remember here is that Payne has been nominated in Best Picture before for The Descendants and his breakout hit Sideways. He has some bias going for him and since he is following up his most critically successful entry, there's a good chance he'll get attention.

At very least, I am noticing that the praise around Dern is pretty high. The acting categories and Payne are usually mutual in some respects. With George Clooney landing a Best Actor nod for The Descendants and Jack Nicholson getting a nomination for About Schmidt, there isn't a shortage of evidence to prove that the Academy loves what Payne does with actors. I'm with them on that, as they are usually what glues his movies' sentimentality together. Even if the trailer does little for me, the clips give me some hope that this is going to pull an upset and that we're going to see him become part of the larger contention.

There's a good chance that this is all for naught. We already have a cramped Best Actor race as it is. There's also the realization that the film feels almost too lo-fi and indie to show up on the radar in terms of overall greatness. The Academy often goes for flashy films or gritty character dramas. This looks to be neither. The year is already packed with great indie performances, including Spring Breakers, Stoker, and The Spectacular Now. I sadly feel like none of them will be recognized (though James Franco's campaign is classic) in favor of bigger studio films. 

There is a good chance that this is just an underwhelming trailer and that this hits all of the beats. Payne has proven time again that he is capable of making even the most mundane of stories come to life. I'll admit that the black and white approach does feel a bit novelty and doesn't help my opinion, but I want to give it a chance. The odds on statistics website Gold Derby have Dern in the Best Actor race in third with odds of 15:2. It is still too soon for this to be set in stone, but with buzz going into the film, it will have to fail pretty hard for opinion to change too rapidly.

I don't see it being a runaway success at the ceremony, however, With 12 Years a Slave already the front runner in every possible way, the success of this film will have to be at a miracle level. It does stand a chance at Best Picture, but only if the film is less underwhelming than what we have here. However, money is on Dern to deliver a heart wrenching performance and play to the Academy's love of older people discovering life. It worked for Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and this could be another lap into that area.

Will Nebraska be able to get into the race despite being comparatively mellow to its competition? Is Bruce Dern a lock for Best Actor? Is Alexander Payne going to be able to get recognition based on his past success?

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