Nebraska

nebraska1Nebraska attracted my attention because of its black and white filming, its low key premise, and its churlish disregard for almost all areas of the four quadrants. In other words, I wanted to read this script to see if it earned the right to let the film produced from it ignore the expectations of reasonable viewers. If you’re going to unnecessarily tax your audience, you better show them something they can’t see anywhere else. Nebraska has a director, a title, and an awards show nomination lineage that made me take notice. But, did I like what I read?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Let’s look at a few important scenes to see how Nebraska fares in the exposition department. The first comes from page 2. It is between David, our protagonist, and Noel—his recent ex-girlfriend.

NOËL
David, you’re supposed to water
that plant. It’s a plant.

David goes to the kitchen to fill a container with water.

DAVID
I’d like you to change your mind.

NOËL
What does that mean?

DAVID
You know what it means. I want you
to move back in.

NOËL
I just moved out.

DAVID
So two years, and we’re back to
dating.

I like this piece of dialogue so much because of the actions and discussion which surround the plant. These 30 or so words tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about this former couple and the feelings they currently have for each other.

As soon as Noel points out that the plant is not being watered, David goes to the sink and gets a glass. If the plant is the symbol of their relationship, than David can’t nurture it unless Noel reminds him it needs to be done. And yet, as soon as he is reminded, David tries to do what is necessary to keep the relationship functioning as a healthy relationship. Excellent work.

Unfortunately we also get gigantic bits of exposition in this tiny selection also. Things that are completely unnecessary given that we have all the great exposition-by-subtext that infuses what is said about the plant.

We don’t need to know that Noel “just moved out”. If she hadn’t the plant would already be dead. Additionally, David would never summarize his relationship with Noel using the “two years” comment. Noel was in the relationship, she knows how long they lived together.

Let’s look at one more example from pages 84-85 to see if this half good/half bad pattern holds.

WOODY
How much do you need? I got a
twenty.

ED PEGRAM
A twenty? Oh, no, no, no, no. I
was thinkin’ more along the lines
of, say, ten grand. *

DAVID
Give him ten grand, Dad.

WOODY
I don’t got it yet.

ED PEGRAM
Woody, I always thought we was
friends. Remember, I was the one
who convinced you to stay with
Kate.

Huh?

ED PEGRAM (CONT’D)
Oh yeah, Davey. Your old man was
thinking of getting a divorce
because he was screwing some half- *
breed from the reservation.
Thought he was in love. Ain’t that
right, Woody?

Woody stares at the table.

DAVID
When was this?

ED PEGRAM
After Ross was born. Before you.
Hell, if it wasn’t for me, you
probably wouldn’t be here. Back
then divorce was a sin. Now I
guess it’s okay. God must have
changed his mind or something.
Blue (10-12-2012) 76.
(MORE)
Although I didn’t really blame you,
Woody, considering Kate’s such a
bitch.

David glares at Ed as though he could hit him.

DAVID
Get the hell away from us. *

ED PEGRAM
I want that money.

DAVID
Move.

Ostensibly, Ed Pegram is in this scene to make a claim to some of Woody’s fake lottery winnings. Toward that end, the comment from David to “Give him ten grand, Dad.” is quite good. However, the way this scene unfolds, it becomes resolutely clear that the ONLY reason Ed Pegram is in this scene asking for 10,000 dollars is SO THAT he can fulfill the expository purpose of letting David [and the audience] know that David almost didn’t happen. That is wild indulgence in dialogue based exposition and extremely poor writing.

5 out of 10 points.

Part B) As I noted about the exchange between David and Noel which opened the exposition discussion, today’s writer has some skill with subtext. He uses this skill throughout his script to probe how much a child owes a parent for the gift of life.

Since this is his aim, it makes sense that David be drawn as reluctant to fulfill this obligation… no matter the size of its price. Children are creatures nature requires start out as hopeless dependents. Over the course of their lives this pendulum of dependency [necessarily] swings toward self-sufficiency. Nebraska dares to ask when [if ever] the pendulum between parents and children can justifiably invert, allowing the child to act as the parent’s parent.

This is not a new idea, and Nebraska is far from the best statement of this idea, but it is a decent rendering. I’ll use this exchange from page 88 as the example:

DAVID *
I won’t mention any of this to Mom
or Ross. We’ll just tell them you
came to your senses, and we’ll head *
back home. Sound good? It’s okay –
– at least we’ve had a little
change of scenery. I’m happy we
got this time together. Aren’t
you?

Woody doesn’t move.

DAVID (CONT’D)
What’s the matter?
(off Woody’s silence)
You know they weren’t going to give
you that money, right?

Woody can’t respond, can’t move. David looks at him, lets *
out a long sigh.

DAVID (CONT’D)
Maybe they dropped it. Should we
go have a look?

Woody stands up, grabs his coat, and heads for the door.

Here we have David acting exactly as a parent would with a stubborn child. First you reason with the child about the impossibility of achieving the child’s objective– but the child’s mind is made up and s/he won’t give up. Next you try and tell the child that s/he is just wrong– whatever it is the child wants doesn’t actually exist. Finally, you give in to the child and make up a quasi-logical reason for how the child’s want might actually exist in the real world in spite of the fact that you originally said it didn’t.

Again, I do not think Nebraska handles its subtext at the Joel and Ethan Coen level, but it does handle it well enough to get all the points:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) As often happens with the character individuation portion of this question, I find myself forced to take off points here that relate to character voices in [at best] a subsidiary way. It’s just that there is no other place to acknowledge the fault Nebraska has of going for jokes with dialogue that is idiosyncratic to the point of illusion. People do not now, and will not ever, talk the way the characters in Nebraska sometimes talk. An example from pages 80-81:

DAVID
(to Woody)
Why didn’t you tell us that wasn’t
Ed’s house?

WOODY
I didn’t know what the hell you
were doing.

ROSS *
Have you ever seen us steal
machinery before?

WOODY
I never know what you boys are up
to.

ROSS *
Why didn’t you say it wasn’t yours?

WOODY
I thought you wanted it.
Blue (10-12-2012) 72.

ROSS
Why would we want an old
compressor?

WOODY
That’s what I couldn’t figure out.

I’m sorry but nothing in this scene makes any sense. The fact that Woody is beginning to experience mental degradation does not explain his participation in this scene. There is no way, given the rules the script states for its characters [especially Woody] prior to this scene, that this scene actually happens. It is supposed to be funny:

4 out of 10 points.


2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

I liked the beginning and felt like the premise was set up well. This script’s trick of having the police pick up Woody for walking from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim his lottery winnings was a great way to get across the exposition needed to set up our story and also put us in Woody’s corner. We automatically feel sorry for him because we assume he’s losing his mind. On top of this, we also identify in a positive way with David because he responds to the situation when summoned by his mother. In other words, he’s a good son and cares about his parents therefore, we like him.

The first 10 introduce us to a slightly crazy old man who is convinced [we think], wrongly, that he has won a million dollars. We understand that this old man intends to make his way to Nebraska by whatever means necessary to claim that million. It also introduces us to a son who [for reasons which aren’t entirely clear] feels a duty to supervise this piece of dementia.

I liked this and wanted to read more:

20 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) Okay, so I’m going to be VERY hard on this script from here until we fade out on this review. The script ended up irritating my screenwriting sensibilities to a degree which rarely happens. Usually I just give up when a script irritates me as much as this one did. By my reckoning, this script had ONE reveal up its sleeve, and dammit if my need to uncover that one reveal didn’t make me read the whole miserable script. I had to find out HOW CRAZY Woody was for wanting to go to Lincoln to claim his million dollars. Let’s trace the origin of this “set-up and reveal” by quoting what the script says about the sweepstakes letter. First, from page 5:

WOODY
“We are now authorized to pay one
million dollars to Mr. Woodrow T.
Grant of Billings, Montana.”

DAVID
Let me see.

Woody hands David the letter.

WOODY
Your mother won’t take me.

DAVID
(reading)
Mega Sweepstakes Marketing. Dad,
this is a total come-on. It’s one
of the oldest gimmicks in the book.
I didn’t even know they did this
anymore.

WOODY
They can’t say it if it’s not true.

Bruce_Dern_Nebraska-Best-MomentsDAVID
They’re just trying to sell you
magazine subscriptions.

WOODY
It says I won.

Now, before I excoriate that piece of dialogue, let’s quote what the end of the script says about the sweepstakes letter. From pages 79-80:

ED PEGRAM
“Congratulations, Woodrow T. Grant.
You may have won one million
dollars.”

Big laughter.

ED PEGRAM (CONT’D)
“All you need to do to collect your
prize is return this letter to our
office, along with your winning
prize number and a list of the
magazine subscriptions you’d like
to –

To this reader, the end of the script “reveal” felt like a ridiculous cheat. If I had known that there was zero chance there was anything legitimate to the letter, I wouldn’t have continued past page 25 [my interest just wasn’t being hooked]. I kept on reading because I assessed the character of Woody as not crazy enough to be that wrong about the letter. I rated Woody’s vacillating degeneration to still be capable of seeing a scam as a scam. It doesn’t feel legitimate that a character as sane as Woody sometimes is could be as literally out of touch as the script needs him to be ONLY when it comes to the sweepstakes letter. It’s as though Woody’s dementia has a laser-like focus.

On the one hand, I want to give the writer credit for keeping alive the idea that the letter MIGHT have good news in it for Woody, with my other hand I simultaneously take all that credit back. The reveal is based on a characterization lie:

5 out of 10 points.

Part B) If I am right and this is a story about the obligation childhood places on children, then the story of a middle aged man confronting this debt in terms of a mentally degenerating father counts as excellent plot to protagonist matching:

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) The pinch point is the already mention sweepstakes reveal delivered by Ed Pegram on pages 79 and 80. This plot point does a great job of funneling the rest of the events in the story towards fade out, but it also completely destroys any and all of the momentum the script had prior to its appearance;

0 out of 5 points.

Part D) Nebraska is thematically confused. I doubt the writer could tell you what he meant for his script to mean AND BACK IT UP with examples from his own text. The message is:

If you can’t have real happiness, have pretend happiness instead.

Not only do I think this is false, I also can’t understand why anyone would want it to be true. To be fair, though, my statement of the theme is FAR clearer than what the script actually gives us to go on:

1.) David completes the trip to Lincoln
2.) He buys his dad a truck and an air compressor
3.) He lets his dad drive through Hawthorne
4.) The script fades out on the highway just outside of Hawthorne

As I always say, writers tend toward ambiguity when they don’t know what the hell they want to say:

3 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) As stated in the introduction, I am all in favor of a script that takes chances with the audience. I am willing to give this script credit for daring to be about something legitimate:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing needs work. It is leagues away from approaching unique:

1 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)

The script isn’t going to fare well here because the writer didn’t work out what he wanted to say before he started writing. The theme it has is: either plainly false, or true… and not worth striving for. I think the script would have been much more coherent if Woody had been the sole protagonist. As it is:

3 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 61

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4 responses to “Nebraska

  1. I really struggled with this script (and film) as well. Just goes to show again what sort of roll luck, and timing, can play in the career of a screenwriter. There was a certain charm, I suppose, to the absurdity of the family dynamics and midwestern characters in the film (Cohenesque, even) but the movie lacked momentum for me and the script was a slog. The material obviously resonated for one reason or another with David O. Russell but banking on the same circumstances with a story written in the vein of Nebraska is tantamount to purchasing a lottery ticket. Writers, lets at least weight our dice before we throw them.

    • I’m not familiar with Bob Nelson [other than what’s listed on his imdb page], but this script does point to the undeniable role of luck and timing. Not only did this get bought, get made, and get distributed, but it also managed an Oscar nomination?

      Even though last year was a slow year for scripts, the combination of all those facts still seems remarkable… to the point of requiring lots of luck and amazing timing.

  2. I think one thing at play here is the recent expansion (2009) of the Oscar Best Picture nominations to up to ten films. Since that change was made there has been an unofficial “lifetime achievement” dynamic in the nominations. To me that seemed to be the case with Nebraska’s nomination, as Alexander Payne is an Academy favorite.

    Ironically, as with many such career-capping gestures, the work in question is probably his weakest.

    Another interesting issue is that The Descendants and Nebraska, Payne’s two most recent works, were written without his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor. Taylor co-wrote the screenplays for Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. I think it is not an accident that the Descendants and Nebraska were the first of Payne’s films that felt inauthentic to me, and even somewhat condescending to their characters.

    • “I think it is not an accident that the Descendants and Nebraska were the first of Payne’s films that felt inauthentic to me, and even somewhat condescending to their characters.”

      Maybe we screenwriters are not as replaceable as our status in the industry would indicate.

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