a theatre, film & pop culture review
What’s so impressive about Nebraska is that writer (and sometime actor) Bob Nelson hasn’t written, well, much of anything else. More than that, he wrote the screenplay over a decade ago, director Alexander Payne optioned it in 2003, and the pair have been tweaking it ever since. About a septuagenarian father and his grown son who road trip from Montana to Nebraska because dad believes he’s won $1million from a direct-mail sweepstakes, the film has suffered criticism for its depiction of midwesterners, which are played alternately sincerely and comically. But Nelson is from South Dakota, and he understands the folks who inhabit middle America — their quirks, foibles, charms. The film may open with the stereotypical nagging wife, tunnel-visioned husband and clueless kid, but there’s a sudden, astounding shift when the wife’s sharp tongue, instead of lashing her husband, vehemently protects him from shameless relatives. You don’t have to be from the midwest to recognize this type of family and these taciturn people — those that mask how deeply they care by baiting each other with sarcasm and criticizing generously. It’s a neat trick that Nelson pulls off, this revelation, and it’s what elevates the film from comic caricature to a deeper rumination on the middle American family.
Even before the Dylan Farrow scandal came to light (again), Woody Allen, who’s been nominated a whopping fifteen times and won a record thrice, couldn’t be his competition here. Surrounding a Ruth Madoff-like society woman, shunned by her 1% friends and stepson, retreats, not exactly humbled, to her sisters’s in San Francisco to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, Blue Jasmine‘s one true feat is Cate Blanchett’s stunning central performance. Topical in the light of this economy, and structured with non-linear, jarring flashbacks that cleverly reflect the inner workings of an unstable mind and faltering memory, the film is a fascinating psychological exploration of a cast-off woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. But its supporting characters are underdeveloped (Ginger’s guys are just a bunch of meatheads) and the narrative, a bit too clunky. In a weaker year, its flaws could be overlooked, but this isn’t that year.
While a film like Nebraska improves the more you think about it, Dallas Buyers Club suffers. It’s your basic redemption story: HIV-diagnosed scoundrel Ron Woodruff takes on big pharma with the help of his queer sidekick. To help others? Well, not exactly, but that’s a direct (and happy) result of his outrage and arrogance. While given strong performances that sell the shit out of them, the characters here are all stereotypes and the narrow scope of the writing fails to point to the bigger picture; we’re never afforded a glimpse of AIDS epidemic outside of Dallas (as usual, for that, one should look to an Oscar-nominated doc). No better than the white savior cliché, this is a tale of the straight guy who saves all those homosexuals, and it’s done so manipulatively that one can’t help but be moved, despite oneself. No doubt that explains all the nominations and awards, and there’s a decent, but not great, chance that love could extend to Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack’s writing as well.
Overwrought Oscar bait is David O. Russell’s specialty, and he doesn’t disappoint with American Hustle, his and Eric Warren Singer’s wry take on the ABSCAM political scandal of the late ’70s. I hear tell it’s a smartly structured script, but I was so distracted by the unbelievability of the Irving/Sydney pairing and the “like flowers but with garbage” dialogue — not to mention Russell’s manic direction — that I honestly can’t tell you. I’m just going to assume that it’s better than DBC because the stellar, well-wigged cast sure believed in what they were selling. In any case, it’s got a very good chance of winning here, seeing as how this category is so closely attached to the Big Picture winner, and it’s got an even better chance of winning there.
But let’s hope this is Her‘s award to lose. While it has no real shot at Best Picture, it did take home the WGA, which is a good, if not determining, factor. Centered around one man and his relationship with an operating system, Spike Jonze’s script is a beautiful exploration of our ever-dependent relationship with technology. Wryly amusing, but in a nostalgic way, it’s disarmingly closer to now than the future. Theodore struggles to connect with his wife and pushes her away when it gets “too real,” but he has no problem opening up to the formless Samantha, offering a kind of mirror to the over-sharers of the social media world who can’t hold a conversation in person, but revel in conversing through bon mots on Twitter. A smart, heartrending philosophical rumination on our inability to connect even as we become more connected (and our need to possess and perfect those we love), this is gorgeous, thoughtful stuff. And it should win.