Fargo (North Dakota) and Nebraska have extreme climates in common and that no one outside this country, and few inside it, can locate either on a blank map. Neither film condescends while finding humor in laconic Midwestern speech -- Kate Grant’s (June Squibb) foul-mouthed irony is simply more effective by contrast -- and are as much melancholic as deadpan comedic. The Coens’ 1996 sleeper carried home Oscars for their screenplay and Joel’s wife Frances McDormand; Alexander Payne’s newest appeared at the New York Film Festival and is in the running for one or more statuettes after Bruce Dern’s winning at its Cannes première.
Praising the beauty of widescreen black and white, little used out of commercial rather than artistic considerations, the director collaborates with scriptwriter and fellow Cornhusker Bob Nelson and with his cameraman of always, Phedon Papamichael, on this attractive five minutes short of two hours, resonant while yet as spare as its refreshingly abbreviated, old-fashioned unadorned credits.
The film’s contemporary world is rural-free of technological gadgetry. The not-malicious or -scam come-on arrives through the good old United States Post Office on real paper that, not stored on some doohickey device, can be folded and unfolded, read and reread, carried around, even lost and found like false teeth.
Unsuspicious country- and town-folk do not read or analyze the small print -- “if your number is one of,” etc., etc. -- so the million-dollar-prize-winner notification from Cornhusker Marketing and Promotions, Inc., is unquestionable to most who see or hear about it.
The sort of road film is built around a father-son journey and the reactions of others to its promise of wealth. Befuddled by a lifetime of alcohol, losing (or being selective in) hearing and concentration, on the edge of Alzheimer’s -- or “just believ[ing] what people tell him” --Woodrow T. “Woody” Grant (Dern) is set to walk the nine-hundred autumn miles from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his money. In their different ways, wife Kate, married local television newscaster son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and at-loose-ends sound-equipment sales clerk son David (Will Forte) deal with the old man and his fool’s errand.
Unkempt, unwashed, unshaven, bald on top with angel’s wings of side hair, the superannuated auto repair shop owner simply sets out again. And again. This brings the family to exasperation, so David agrees to call in sick and drive to Nebraska with the cantankerous father he would like to get to know and maybe understand.
Eighty-something-year-old Woody steps into taverns along the way, driving his teetotaling traveling companion to drink himself, and has an accident that occasions their stopping a while in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the father and mother’s hometown left years ago and not looked back to.
They are soon joined by Kate and Ross at Woody’s brother Ray and sister-in-law Martha’s and their loutish, car-obsessed, funny but dangerous fatty sons Bart and Cole (Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray). Soft-touch Woody is genuinely congratulated by some, but others, family as well as friends and an also-dangerous ex-partner (Stacy Keach, as Ed Pegram), smell money and swoop in like vultures. Since Woody talks so little, and reveals even less, Peg Nagy’s (Angela McEwan) disinterested but sympathetic voice from the past comes along to inform David and furnish real paper newsprint proof of that past.
Among simple shapes and sharp contrasts out of American regionalism, Grant Wood, Hopper, Wyeth, the story occurs along bare roads and roadsides or in shops lining Main Street or homes. The old dog will not be taught any new tricks, the father does not give an inch or change; the son does. David slyly rewards his sire, and his own reward lies in doing so. Craft, care, and the cast keep predictable sentimentality mostly at arm’s length in this affectionate picture of life, accepting it and its end drawing near.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” for some language.)