Thursday, March 13, 2014


Woody Grant is a wintry old man at the end of his life. His wife, long indifferent to him, either ignores him or is in his ear about something. One son has reached middle age on the verge of highly local celebrity and the other works a job failing to sell home entertainment systems to people who just want to browse. One day Woody receives a letter that tells him he's won a million dollars. He starts walking. The place he needs to claim from is one and a bit states away in Nebraska so he needs to get a move on. He does but he keeps getting hauled back by police or the underachieving son and more nagging. Finally, his son who has tried to tell the old man that the win is actually a scam to trick people into buying magazine subscriptions but Woody doesn't seem to get beyond the words WINNER and WINNER printed in gold either side of the big bursting star and pot of gold in the centre of the letter. So they set off.

Ok, you know where this is going. Father and son road trip blending quirky comedy and serious life discussions in a big ol' road movie. All of that is there and is unfortunately emphasised by the trailer. But to say it's more than that is both inadequate and saying too much. It's inadequate as the tale unfolds to reveal layers and sides of characters that delight with the discovery in a finely judged display of narrative and character perspective. Too much because the road trip scenario if done well needs only minimal description. You dig it or you don't. I do. I've been left short changed now and then (Little Miss Sunshine or this same director's About Schmidt) but not here.

This is the America of Robert Frank and The Handsome Family where your cousins' second question after "how are you?" is "how long did it take to drive here?" But we're not having a giggle at the hicks for more than a little handshake phase. These people are as wily as city folk even if their manifest fantasies sadden us at exposure. When, waylaid from the goal by circumstance, Woody and his son David camp at their cousins place in Woody's home town, the story enters a medieval movement as visions of the pot of gold stir the locals to schemes and greed. Darting around this and averting disaster by aborting an interview with the local paper, David learns some poignant things about his father which prey on our minds as we watch the remainder unfold.

It goes where you think it will but boy does it keep you going alongside. Bruce Dern made his career by stepping from one intense centre of gravity after another but Woody reminds me more of his subtle turn in the satire Smile as the small town Vietnam vet made good who really wants the local beauty pageant to embody the new, positive America he thinks he fought for. Here, Woody, at the end of his life holds decades of disappointment in and expresses his later life's desire in greatly reduced form as the simplest of things (go and buy a ticket to find out what they are). Dern will have to pull a Bengal tiger out of a hat to better this as a swansong.

Will Forte as David must find the futility of regret while still young enough to avoid it and old enough to prevent youthful stupidity. We need him between Woody and the venal world with its rustic smiles and wicked thoughts. He gives us a weariness that might yet wake. June Squibb (also in About Schmidt) gives us a hell of a lot more detail that the trailer's cantankery suggested. If there is a little herk herk with the ways of the country there is also the keen-eyed greed of an Ed Pegram (a magnetically bullish Stacy Keach) and a folk songbook's worth of regret and heartache in Peg Nagy's single gaze at Woody as he goes by towards the end.

All of this lives in a landscape of powerful black and white cinematography that Alexander Payne took from colour hi-def into that pallette of Robert Frank and added a grain-noise filter the way that big hitters in the 90s added vinyl crackle to their digital recordings. Add a purpose-built score of gently lapping jazz and folk to whisper around all that fading agriculture and a greatly diminished Mount Rushmore and you get something designed to the last pixel that feels as real as roadside mud. I've liked most of Payne's movies like Election and Sideways but I've never known any to settle from the injections of quirk and self-conscious gravity as this piece, without overweening, without easy sentimentality. This is a masterpiece.

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