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NEBRASKA

Just as he did in previous films like “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne maintains a wonderful balance between sentiment and satire in “Nebraska.” His treatment of Middle American characters struggling with family troubles amid economic distress is gently mocking without becoming condescending, and affectionate without degenerating into schmaltz. The effect, bolstered by exceptional work from the cast and lustrous widescreen black-and-white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, is almost magical in its mixture of humor and poignancy.

The film is essentially a father-and-son road trip from Montana to Nebraska. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in a career-capping performance) is a grizzled, half-befuddled old alcoholic who becomes convinced that a sweepstakes mailing that’s nothing more than a typical scam to promote magazine purchases represents an actual award of a million dollars, and he’s determined to get from Billings to Lincoln to claim the prize personally. Though his sharp-tongued wife Kate (hilariously feisty June Squibb) dismisses his obsession as the nuttiness of an old crank, Woody—who can no longer drive—is determined to walk the whole distance if need be, which convinces his son David (sad-faced Will Forte from “Saturday Night Live,” delivering a beautifully restrained performance) to drive him, even though he knows the entire trek is a waste, money-wise.

David is himself a rather pathetic figure—his live-in girlfriend has just moved out and his dreary job as a stereo salesman barely makes ends meet. But he somehow understands the importance of this quest to his bedraggled father and becomes his Sancho Panza in hopes of bonding with the man he’s always felt little connection with. Their trip, of courses, becomes a picaresque filled with little incidents, such as a genial one involving a lost set of dentures.

But the centerpiece is a stopover in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where a visit with his extended family, some of whom have their hands out, and encounters with old acquaintances—notably his erstwhile partner in a garage (Stacy Keach) whom Woody holds responsible for a past grievance but who, conversely, feels he’s entitled to a share in Grant’s winnings, as well as an elderly newspaperwoman (Angela McEwan)—give David new insight into his father’s past. After excursions to the dilapidated Grant homestead and the windswept local cemetery, the journey ends at the dingy sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln and a final gesture by David that leads to a slow drive down Hawthorne’s main street that’s both melancholy and uplifting, a lovely summing-up of the life of a man not unlike the ones James Agee called famous.

Bob Nelson’s alternately touching, edgy and funny script and Payne’s typically gentle, unforced direction give their cast the opportunity to shine without being rushed. Dern is amazing, utterly jettisoning the hyper style that’s so often been the essence of his personality with a marvelously subtle turn that avoids the invitation to pander to the audience. It recalls Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt, not because the two characters are similar but because under Payne’s light touch both veteran stars perfectly embody their worlds of regret without losing sight of their dignity. Forte matches him beat for beat in an understated performance so good that it almost makes one forgive “MacGruber.” (I said almost.) Squibb, who was Nicholson’s short-lived spouse in “Schmidt,” here gets the chance to please the crowd with her blistering outspokenness, behind which lie hidden reservoirs of affection. Keach alternately exudes false joviality and backwoods menace, while Bob Odenkirk is a fine foil as Woody’s older son, a TV anchorman who’s a big fish in a very small, probably frozen pond. Most of the supporting cast—including McEwan, and Mary Louise Wilson and Rance Howard as Woody’s relatives—all strike the right tone, with the only jarring notes coming from Tim Driscoll and Devin Retray as David’s bumptious cousins, who represent the sole instance in which Nelson and Payne go for the satiric jugular, upsetting the film’s otherwise carefully modulated approach.

And just as important to the success of “Nebraska” are Papamichael’s crystalline cinematography, which gives the locations a luminous purity at odds with their distressed condition, and Mark Orton’s spare score. Though they don’t call attention to themselves, Dennis Washington’s production design, Sandy Veneziano’s art direction, Beauchamp Fontaine’s set decoration and Wendy Chuck’s costume design are all integral to the film’s authentic yet iconic look, too.

To be honest, Nebraska, on the evidence of this film, is hardly a pictorial garden spot one might long to visit. But as Payne and Nelson also show, it is a place filled with the dreams, longings and disappointments of the sort of people mostly overlooked in the great mass of American films. Their “Nebraska” is a destination you should head for without delay.

BLUE JASMINE

Just when it seemed that Woody Allen had lost his touch, producing a string of movies high on curdled whimsy, recycled jokes and pallid dramatics, he surprises with one of his richest, most incisive films in years. Much of the credit for “Blue Jasmine” goes to him, but he has to share it with his fine ensemble cast and especially Cate Blanchett, whose lead performance is a marvel.

Allen’s script is obviously a riff on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but with a contemporary twist. Jeanette (Blanchett), who’s taken to calling herself Jasmine, was for years the pampered wife of Wall Street mastermind Hal (Alec Baldwin), living a life of privilege and ease in New York high society. But her husband was arrested on charges of securities fraud and committed suicide in jail, and her relationship with his son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) collapsed. Now penniless and fraught, she arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins)—who’s actually not a blood relative, since both were adopted from separate birth parents—until she can get back on her feet.

Of course Jasmine is hardly the sort to pull herself out of the doldrums on her own power. Nervous and demanding, still nursing a sense of noblesse oblige though fallen on hard times, prone to bouts of clinical depression, and more inclined to empty dreams of becoming an interior decorator than taking a mundane job, she’s the epitome of the high-strung, self-absorbed woman accustomed to being taken care of and considering it her due. By contrast Ginger’s a struggling single mother to two young sons and a check-out clerk at a supermarket. Her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is a rough-and-tumble handyman who lost his windfall—a lottery jackpot—in a scheme of Hal’s and can’t believe Jasmine’s protestations that she knew nothing of her husband’s illegalities. And she’s now hooked up with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a gregarious but boorish mechanic whom Jasmine immediately writes off as a loser unworthy of Ginger.

The film proceeds in fits and starts, jumping between the California present and the East Coast past. It gradually offers a portrait of Jasmine’s former life, revealing Hal’s serial infidelity as well as Ginger’s discovery of it during the visit on which Hal wheedled Augie’s money out of him. But the bulk of it is devoted to the sisters in San Francisco. There Jasmine, after putting off a low-class chum that Chili proposes as a possible boyfriend, takes an unsatisfying job as receptionist to a nebbishy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who develops a crush on her. Meanwhile she tries to learn computer programming, to little avail, and encourages Ginger to dump Chili in favor of a decent-seeming sound engineer (Louis C.K.) she meets at a party—sending Chili into an uncontrollable rage. Ginger’s new relationship doesn’t turn out quite as she hoped, nor does Jasmine’s romance with slick State Department up-and-comer Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who accepts her airs and even goes so far as to propose, until Jasmine’s lies about her past derail the happy ending she’d envisaged for herself.

Unlike in so many of his films, Allen balances dark humor and sharp drama meticulously here, with an emphasis on the latter. And he’s supremely fortunate to have Blanchett in the lead. She fully embodies the desperation of Jasmine as the character veers from vodka-soaked self-delusion to contemptuous dismissal of those she considers inferior and from morose introspection to babbling hysteria. The range of emotions the script demands of Blanchett is enormous, and she responds with a ferocious performance that captures all of them. Hawkins has a much less demanding role, but she captures Ginger’s vulnerability well, and Baldwin is the very essence of the calculating shark. Of the other men in the cast, Cannavale and Clay strike all the right notes as lower-class guys with volatile tempers, while Sarsgaard draws an impeccable portrait of the consummate class-conscious Washington insider. And though Louis C.K. doesn’t have much screen time, he’s surprisingly convincing as a guy who might not be as nice as he seems. Even Stuhlbarg manages to give some depth to what might have been a mere caricature.

“Blue Jasmine” exhibits the unobtrusively excellent technical quality of most Allen movies, with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe making fine use of the outdoor locations as well as the very different interiors—from plush, expensive apartments to cramped, overfilled ones. And the song “Blue Moon” was an inspired choice as a signature melody, its melancholy tones capturing the longing for love that’s the key to Jasmine’s character while also suggesting a larger cultural context (it was written in the throes of the Depression, and somehow suggests the equally disorienting economic realities of the present). This is both a sharp-edged character study of a woman on the verge of a psychological breakdown and a cannily-constructed ensemble piece reflecting the differences of class and culture that permeate American life.