Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph

Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.

But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”

Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.

Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.

A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.

One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.

All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.

“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”

“Stopped runnin’.”

“Yeah … They’ll do that.”

I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)

Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.

French film asks, what’s in a ‘name’?

Baya Benmahmoud, the heroine of the French film “The Names of Love,” gives new meaning to the concept of political activism.

A fervent, if rather naïve, left-winger whose guiding motto is, “Make love, not war,” her mission is to convert right-wing politicians to the correct ideology by sleeping with them.

“I am a political whore,” she announces proudly when she meets Arthur Martin, a 40-ish, uptight ornithologist, who rambles on about bird diseases when Baya inquires whether they should make love at his or her place.

So, the film’s opening promises a racy comedy, set in the 1980s and in Paris, of course. Voyeurs will not be disappointed, as the ravishing Baya walks around, indoors and out, without any encumbering clothing.

But between the jokes and the frontal nudity, the director and co-writer, Michel Leclerc, injects some sharp observations about racial prejudice, politics, victimization and how people define their national and personal identities.

“I wanted to show that racism can come from any place and that, at one time or another, we are all strangers to each other,” Leclerc commented in a phone call from Paris, facilitated by a translator.

The movie’s Baya and Arthur personify this observation. Her father, Mohamed Benmahmoud, is an Algerian Arab whose own father was killed by French soldiers and who experienced the vicious warfare of the French-Algerian war as a child in the 1950s.

Baya’s mother is a rebellious, leftist Frenchwoman, who transmitted her fair complexion to her daughter. So, while Baya can easily pass as a non-Arab, she delights in flaunting her Algerian heritage.

On the other hand, Arthur’s French Catholic father, Lucien Martin, is a nuclear scientist who served with the French army in Algiers. Arthur’s mother, Annette Martin, nee Cohen, is Jewish and was hidden during the Nazi occupation of France, while her own mother perished in Auschwitz.

Where Baya glories in her half-Arab heritage, Arthur does his best to ignore his half-Jewish background. But when he acknowledges his Jewishness to Baya, the girl is delighted.

“We’re two slices of history making love,” she exclaims happily. “We’re the future of humanity. When everybody is a half-breed, we’ll have peace.”

It would be easy to accuse director Leclerc of creating two characters, an Arab and a Jew, to make some facile points about opposites attracting and love conquering all.

The twist here, as Leclerc detailed in the interview, is that the film is, in all essential points, autobiographical. Leclerc is the film’s Arthur, and the film’s Baya is Baya Kasmi in real life.

“We met 10 years ago, have been partners since and have two children,” Leclerc said.

The partnership goes beyond the domestic, with the director and Kasmi credited as co-writers of “The Names of Love.”

The original French title is “Le Nom des Gens” or “The Name of People,” a much more apt title, given the movie’s theme that we pigeonhole people not only by their nationalities and religions, but also by their family names.

“I opposed the title’s English translation,” Leclerc said, “but I was told that if the film was to succeed in America, it had to include the word ‘love.’ ”

Commenting on his two main characters’ respective family traumas, the Holocaust and the Algerian war, Leclerc said he abhorred the “ridiculous competition of suffering.” By setting the film’s time frame in the 1980s, Leclerc examines France’s long-delayed reaction to the country’s collaboration during World War II and the atrocities committed during the war in Algiers.

“For decades, the subjects were taboo,” the 45-year-old director said. “But for my generation, growing up, these events became obsessions, and we had to talk about them.”

The contrasting identities of the lead characters are beautifully expressed by veteran actor Jacques Gamblin as Arthur, and rising star Sara Forestier as Baya. The latter won a Cesar, France’s equivalent of the Oscar, for her performance, as did Leclerc and Baya Kasmi for their screenplay.

“The Names of Love” opens June 24 at the Landmark Theater, at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards in West Los Angeles.

The Silent Minority

If there had been any doubts that I was in another country, they were erased when the first reviews of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" began to appear in the London press.

While there was a mixture of praise and repugnance (just like the United States), with negative voices drowning out the affirmative ones, film critics and reviewers in London generally bypassed the Jews in their deconstruction of the film.

Missing in most of the reviews was any recognition of Jewish concerns — except, of course, in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, the community’s local weekly newspaper, which devoted several issues to describing the responses of the editor, the columnists and the community: A terrible, inaccurate and anti-Semitic film, they argued. That community apparently is small enough to be hidden from view — 300,000 out of a population of 58 million with two-thirds living in greater London, and a large percentage of that number secular and unaffiliated. The end result is that Britain’s affiliated Jews are not a significant enough presence in society to merit concern. We are, to quote one Jewish community leader, simply invisible.

This has its ironic side today. Jews have made incredible strides within Britain over the past 40 years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s days as the Tory Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 1980s, Jews have taken on an active role in the British establishment: They figured prominently in Thatcher’s Cabinet, and began to play an increasingly significant role at the bar and the judiciary, as well as in publishing, science and the press. Today, to everyone’s astonishment (in the Jewish community) the leader of the Conservative Party and perhaps the next prime minister, Michael Howard, is Jewish; as is Michael Grade, the newly appointed director of the powerful BBC; while Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who, after seven years away from politics, has returned and is expected to rejoin the Conservatives in Parliament. How invisible can that be?

The problem is that nothing comparable to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations or the Anti-Defamation League exists in Great Britain. There is little Jewish political clout. The organized Jewish community is represented by a Board of Deputies, which consists of synagogue and organizational leaders. But it is not a commanding lobby group with powerful ties to the political institutions of the nation.

Nor is there a sense within the national press and television stations that Jewish issues are part and parcel of the national political dialogue. When BBC 4 aired a television program that discussed in detail Jewish anxieties and criticism of Gibson’s "The Passion," the footage was filled with clips from the U.S. showing prominent American Jewish figures, such as Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, speaking out against the film. Indeed, one telling newspaper review featured a critic who explained that he took along a Jewish friend to the film’s screening, but then was baffled when the friend complained that some scenes were anti-Semitic. The reviewer did not like the film, but failed to understand how anyone could view it as directed against the Jews.

Perhaps that explains the intellectual attack that appeared in The Spectator, a conservative weekly opinion magazine.

"It’s not between Christians and Jews," critic Mark Steyn wrote, "but between believing Christians and the broader post-Christian culture."

What post-Christians wanted, he explained with a sly wink, was a wimpy Jesus who died so our sins could be licensed. Gibson’s film about Jesus the Redeemer was instead for those Christians who read the Bible as God’s word; for those "red meat" Christians who took the New Testament as the literal truth.

Many clergymen reserved cinema seats in advance and bought tickets for their congregations. Their hope was that the film would inject vitality into Christian worship and, in the process, bring people back to the church. They seemed unaware of Jewish fears and needs. In a limited way, some of their hopes were borne out. The film was a smash hit in England, breaking box office records — though nothing to compare with the commercial success in the United States.

There is a rueful lesson of sorts for me in all of this. I have felt, along with others, that at times American Jewish organizations have been strident on the issues of anti-Semitism, Israel and other Jewish fears. They have often helped foster a cultural identity based on victimization. The alternative in Great Britain appears to be inclusion and integration in place of a collective Jewish voice. The richness of a Jewish identity and cultural memory is there in England for those who choose affiliation — but it is not accompanied by a strong political presence. In the United States — for better or ill — we appear to have it both ways.

Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.