(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at this month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Alexander Payne with “Nebraska.”)
The director: Alexander Payne (American, 52 years old). Two-time Academy Award winner Payne has cultivated a reputation as one of contemporary American cinema’s premier humanists — though critics disagree over the level of intended misanthropy that has cut through his work since his openly satirical early films. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska — the region that defined his work up until 2004’s California-set “Sideways” — to Greek-American parents, Payne majored in Spanish and History at Stanford, before completing his Masters’ at the UCLA Film School. After completing several shorts (including a segment in Playboy’s erotic compilation “Inside Out”), Payne made his feature debut with the 1996 abortion-debate satire “Citizen Ruth,” which premiered in competition at Sundance. Greater acclaim (and his first Oscar nod) came with his 1999 follow-up “Election”; “Nebraska” is only his fourth feature since then, but his critical standing has remained steadfast throughout. Returning from a seven-year gap in 2011 with “The Descendants,” his most mainstream work to date, Payne was welcomed back with a second writing Oscar and career-high box office. Previously closely allied with writing partner Jim Taylor (with whom he also contributed to the screenplays of “Jurassic Park III” and, er, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”), Payne went without him on “The Descendants.” On “Nebraska,” meanwhile, he’s off writing duty entirely.
The talent: For his last few films, Payne has alternated between employing major marquee stars (Nicholson, Clooney) and elevating underused character actors (Paul Giamatti), and he’s taken the latter course on his latest. Payne’s debut gave a plum role to Laura Dern; 17 years later, he’s called on her 76-year-old father Bruce — an Oscar nominee in 1978 for “Coming Home,” but one who has since been largely relegated to TV (“Big Love”) and B-movies (“Coffin Baby,” anyone?). Dern wasn’t Payne’s first choice for the role: that’d be the now-retired Gene Hackman. Sharing the lead is TV comedy actor-writer and former “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte, whose film credits to date haven’t gotten much more distinguished than “Rock of Ages.” He’s not the only person more famous for TV work in a cast that also includes another “SNL” alum in Emmy-winning comedy writer and “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk, as well as Mike Hammer himself, Stacy Keach.
The screenplay on Payne’s first non-Payne-scripted project is by little-known Bob Nelson, whose most prominent previous credit is as a writer on Magic Johnson’s short-lived late-night talk show “The Magic Hour.” Producing partners Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger’s previous credits include “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks”; this is their first collaboration with Payne. Below the line, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael also shot “The Descendants” and “Sideways.” Editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all Payne’s features (and received an ACE Award and an Oscar nod for “The Descendants”) is also back on board. No composer is credited, which suggests Payne may be relying, as he did in his last film, on pre-existing music.
The pitch: Lest the title raise your hopes, “Nebraska” is not a conceptual adaptation of Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album of the same name, though we can surely count on a similar degree of Midwest melancholy. Like “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “Nebraska” is a male-driven road movie; like “Schmidt” and “The Descendants,” it focuses on parent-child relations, though the father-son angle is new for him. Dern plays a cantankerous, alcoholic old-timer in Billings, Montana who is duped into believing he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, and convinces his estranged son (Forte) to trek with him to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Naturally, they get waylaid along the way in a small Nebraskan town where Dern’s character has unfinished business. It seems a typical setup for Payne, with ample scope for semi-sour comedy and laughter-through-the-tears bonding. What’s interestingly different this time round is that Payne, against studio Paramount’s wishes, is presenting the film in black-and-white for an “iconic, archetypal look.” After initially being handed Nelson’s script simply for the purposes of recommending a director, Payne has been sitting on it for several years, biding his time after “Sideways” so as not to make two road movies in a row. Paramount evidently expects it to be worth the wait; the film has already been scheduled for release on the prime awards-friendly date of November 22.
The pedigree: Payne has been in Competition at Cannes once before, with “About Schmidt” in 2002 — it left the festival empty-handed, but was widely admired by critics. “Schmidt” and “Nebraska” aside, Payne has largely steered clear of the European festival circuit, and as universally well-regarded as his films have been, one could argue that his critical fanbase is American-led. “The Descendants” perhaps inspired more of a critical backlash than Payne’s previous features, with some mourning the edgier comedy of his earlier work, but we’re still talking a minority movement here.
The buzz: Strong. For those who found “The Descendants” a little too slickly Academy-packaged for their liking, the new film’s monochrome look, absence of star casting and, of course, its return to Payne’s home state exude a back-to-basics appeal. The premise, however, still promises the emotional accessibility of his more mainstream work. Its announcement in the Competition lineup was greeted with more surprise and excitement than most, as several Cannes pundits had determined it wouldn’t be ready in time, and was likelier to premiere in Toronto.
The odds: Even if early reviews prime the film as the Oscar player Paramount is hoping for, that doesn’t make it any likelier that the festival will begin furnishing its award cabinet: from “No Country for Old Men” to Payne’s own “About Schmidt,” Cannes juries are often reluctant to reward films that seem likely to garner U.S. awards success further down the road. Then again, Spielberg is the festival’s most mainstream jury president in several years: if he resists any counterintuitive urges, and indeed zigs where many are expecting him to zig, Payne seems a likely beneficiary. Jigsaw Lounge grants him reasonable Palme odds of 10-1, though a likelier-on-paper award — and one that would take the film out of the Palme running, under current festival rules — would be the Best Actor prize, either for Dern alone, or jointly with Forte.
The premiere date: Thursday, May 23.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up the latest from one of three former Palme d’Or winners in this year’s Competition lineup: Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur.”
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