Now more than ever, pop culture is about the small stuff — an obscure TV show, a few notes in a pop song, a tweet. To celebrate a year of micro moments, every day a new Grantland writer will highlight one specific thing — a Big Little Thing — that we won't soon forget.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska was billed as the last great hurrah for the 77-year-old Bruce Dern, and so it has been. At Cannes he won Best Actor; he also received a standing ovation that he’d later brag to the New York Times outpaced the one his pal Jack Nicholson got at the festival for Payne’s About Schmidt. By three minutes. And while the field is crowded, most prognosticators agree Dern's performance will almost surely land him his first Oscar nod in some 30 years, his first nomination in a lead role, and quite possibly an actual statuette. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. Even if you’re unaware of Dern’s enduring screen persona as something of a kinetic cad, just seeing him in black-and-white as the nearly mute, nearly defeated Woody Grant is a delight. Then there is the timeless appeal of an old gunslinger making one last stand. Who among us doesn’t take pleasure in envisioning ourselves, when that day comes, standing up as straight and proud and plucky as ol’ Dernsie?
After dinner, after football, you'll want a movie. Here are four options.
Oldboy, directed by Spike Lee
Everything is wrong with Lee's version of Park Chan-wook's notorious, super-violent super-action-thriller. For one thing, it's far from super. Not the quality, per se (although, for Lee, that's off, too), but the energy. Park's movie lunged and charged at you. This one doesn't muster that same relentless forward motion. A sleazy suit (Josh Brolin) wakes up one day and finds himself locked in a room. He doesn't know why. But he does a lot of sit-ups and yoga. Twenty years later, he's set free, climbing out of the sort of Louis Vuitton trunk you'd find in a Wes Anderson movie. Dressed in a nicer suit, the man searches for his captor, his daughter, and answers: Did, for instance, he actually kill his ex-wife? He winds up slaying lots of men, with a hammer, a bat, and his bare hands.
Alexander Payne's Nebraska is Will Forte's sardonic, hushed, black-and-white Back to the Future. In the film, the former Saturday Night Live player stars as David, an aimless townie who indulges his dad, Woody, by traveling from Montana to Nebraska to claim a $1 million sweepstakes prize. Along the way, they stop by Woody's hometown only to find the past catching up with them. David becomes an observer as his father unearths old relationships, forgotten quarrels, and regrets he'd rather not confront. And, as if afraid of the butterfly effect, David rarely intervenes, steering Woody as best he can through each complicated encounter. It's a time-travel movie without the actual time travel.
Nebraska is a far cry from Forte's previous work. And he knows it — from the get-go the actor questioned his ability to tackle the role. Forte had the balls to dance around naked with celery in his butt for MacGruber, but sparring with Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern in a realistic character piece? A different beast. Here, we talk to Forte about the performances he loves and taking a bold dramatic step.
A big part of your early career was spent writing comedy, but did you aspire to perform?
Alexander Payne is batting 1.000: From Citizen Ruth to Election to About Schmidt to Sideways to The Descendants, the director has crafted one wickedly funny, deceptively heartfelt, and totally crushing gem after another. I mean, Warren Schmidt’s last letter to Ngudu alone (“I’m weak. And I’m a failure. There’s just no getting around it") is the colossus. Sprinkle in some Thomas Haden Church doing fleeing-from-enraged-cuckolded-husband full-frontal and Chris Klein rebuffing detractors with a simple “but bruh bruh, I was in Election,” and you’ve got one inimitable, very necessary career. His latest, Nebraska — featuring a career-capping turn from the sly Hollywood vet Bruce Dern, as a muddled old man attempting to cash in a bogus Publishers Clearing House million-dollar prize, alongside a son (Will Forte) still hoping for that bonding moment — is a sharp, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking piece of filmmaking. In other words: It is triumphantly Payne-ian.
The screenwriter of Nebraska is Bob Nelson, and this is his first produced feature. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some life experience of which to speak, including brushes with Chris Rock, Joel McHale, The Magic Hour, and — [airhorn] [airhorn] [airhorn] — Bill Goddamn Nye the Science Guy. Ahead of this week’s release of Nebraska, we caught up with Nelson.
Chances are good you haven't actually noticed that Jack Nicholson hasn't been in a movie in three years. (His last appearance was a supporting role in James L. Brooks's non-starter, weirdly un-punctuated How Do You Know. Before that: 2007's The Bucket List. Before that: 2006's The Departed. A weirdly apt career-defining run, that.) The Lakers' courtside action alone is enough to keep him in our hearts and minds; sprinkle in the Oscars and whatever other nationally televised events he decides to make a sunglasses-at-night appearance at, and Jack's lock on the boozy, charming, lady-slayer uncle we all wish we had is ensured. Now hear this: Radar Online is reporting that Nicholson is actually already retired. Are you feeling feelings?
Says Radar: "The 76-year-old icon has no plans to appear in films again … 'Jack has — without fanfare — retired,' a well-placed Hollywood film insider confirmed … 'There is a simple reason behind his decision — it's memory loss. Quite frankly, at 76, Jack has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him.'" More of note: Apparently Alexander Payne wanted to reteam with Nicholson, who turned in an utterly devastating performance in Payne's About Schmidt, for the upcoming Nebraska. A story about a man and his son attempting to connect as they travel from Montana to Nebraska to collect the father's lottery winnings, it's got definite echoes of Schmidt, and so really does sound perfect for Jack. But Nicholson turned down the role, and Bruce Dern got a huge latter-day career break.
On Sunday night, 76-year-old veteran star Bruce Dern — father of Laura, Oscar nominee for Coming Home, Tom Buchanan to Redford’s Gatsby — won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his turn as Woody, an obstinate but mentally fading Middle American alcoholic retiree in Alexander Payne’s new movie Nebraska. Dern’s performance is a tour de force of eight-octave range, but it’s his co-star, Will Forte, who taps into previous unrevealed stores of talent. Heretofore best known for his MacGuyver-on-meth SNL parody MacGruber, and his more recent turn as Jane Krakowski’s transsexual look-alike/lover on 30 Rock, Forte gives an extremely restrained, internal performance as Woody’s increasingly, tenaciously protective son David. It’s by far the least comedic thing he’s ever done — and it may be the most true to who he really is.
On the way into the new Alexander Payne movie this morning, it was obvious a lot of us were still recovering from yesterday's Nicolas Winding Refn killathon. Only God Forgives has its defenders. In me, it's got someone very sad to have missed the chance to watch the jury watch this movie, especially poor Naomi Kawase, whose films take an oblique, holistic approach to violence. They suggest the delicate temperament of a filmmaker who'd visit the emergency room over the slicing of a tomato.
There's been some conspiracy-theorizing about the festival gaming the selection pool to suit the tastes of the jury's president, Steven Spielberg, as if he's Naomi Kawase, too. There's a case to be made for this notion, because, in other sections of the festival, there are much stronger, more daring films. But Only God Forgives is a pretty sound counterargument. If it wanted to do the jury a favor, the festival could have put the Refn film somewhere else (or ignored it) and stuck, instead, with Michael Kohlhaas. It's Only God Forgives, but with actual God.
If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
Oh, how lonely it is to be in the minority of viewers who hate an acclaimed movie. It’s like watching your friends throw their hands up on Space Mountain and go “Wheeee!” when you’re just claustrophobic and nauseated in outer space, or deciding to leave the slumber party early just as someone pulls out a bottle of cooking wine to get crunk. You have failed at enjoying something that will win Oscars. You failed to be moved. Your heart is faulty. Your ears are the only set of ears that don’t want to hear more ukulele music. When you sigh at The Descendants, expecting your sigh to settle among other disaffected exhalations of stale air, somebody claps a hand over your mouth and insists that “this mature, well-acted dramatic comedy is deeply satisfying, maybe even cathartic." Wheee! Look at those glittering planets zipping by! Who’s that curmudgeon throwing up on her own shoes?!
I’m going to begin this edition of Oscarmetrics with a cautionary tale about overreaction, backlash, and misbehavior. Appropriately, it comes from one Best Picture nominee, and it’s about another. In the 2005 film Capote, we watch our brilliant, narcissistic protagonist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) experience a friend’s success the only way he can — as a staggering personal humiliation. He attends the premiere of the movie version of his loyal pal Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Afterward, Lee finds him at the bar, magnificently self-absorbed, and, of course, choked with jealousy.
“How’d you like the movie, Truman?” she asks patiently. He can’t even rouse himself to look at her. She finally walks away — at which point he murmurs sourly, to himself, “I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss is about.” And nobody cares.
As we enter a season that’s defined by a great deal of fuss, of hyperbolic praise, and of hyperbolic dissent, it bears remembering that at some point in the next few months, we’re all going to find ourselves on the losing side of at least one movie argument. And when a film that everybody seems to love leaves us cold, we all, to some extent, risk sounding like Truman Capote — pissy, superior, bitter, bored. This is the time of year when the ridiculous word “overrated” gets tossed around as if it were an actual qualitative property of a movie rather than a silly side argument about what other people thought of it. So my current resolution is to try to be arrogant about movies that I love, but humble about movies that work for everybody else but not for me.
Last week, while seeking evidence of how quickly Academy Awards campaign rhetoric can hit bottom, I came across the following Huffington Post headline. I know it’s still early, but we may have already found, in five words, the perfect storm of hysteria, prematurity, and inaccuracy. Here’s the headline:
“Madonna Bombs; Oscar Hopes Dead?”
Let me offer a word-by-word translation, since unless you are dangerously fluent in awards hyperbole, this announcement should be completely incomprehensible to you. “Madonna” is Madonna. She has made — meaning directed, but not starred in — a movie called W.E. “W” stands for Wallis Simpson; “E” stands for King Edward VIII, so in historical terms, this is a movie about the romance that caused the British abdication crisis in 1936; in movie terms, this is a spinoff of The King’s Speech that’s all about Colin Firth’s sneering Nazi-symp asshole brother, except now he’s a good guy. Even though Madonna has enough psychic power to have successfully mind-wiped the world’s population 10 years ago into believing that she is the descendant of a lovely old-money family from Sussex instead of a crabby Italian lady from Michigan, this particular piece of image alteration may be too tall an order.