New Tricks

Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska is ostensibly about a half-senile old coot who falls prey to a hokey marketing ploy that promises him a pile of riches he will never actually collect.

Yet the movie’s melancholy air is all the time haunted by the possibility that this man, Woody Grant, is as much the perpetrator of a playful con as he is the victim of one.

The story begins when Woody receives a letter claiming he has “won” a million bucks, and that he only needs to travel to company headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it.  The plot, such as it is, concerns the ridiculous journey that ensues, as Woody is chauffeured by his extremely reluctant son, David, from their hometown of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, with an extended stopover in Hawthorne, the small (fictional) Nebraska town where Woody grew up and where much of his family and friends remain.

It becomes evident early on that the million-dollar letter is merely an excuse for a road trip to allow the audience and David to get to know Woody better.  As played by Bruce Dern, he proves a rather compelling study, insomuch as we come to learn a great deal about him and his past, yet never quite reach a full understanding of what makes him tick.

Among the mysteries that arise is whether Woody is really as loopy as he appears, or whether he is putting on something of an act.

From the opening credits onward, Woody is shown incontrovertibly to be in a declining mental state.  We see this in the way he drifts in and out of conversations, through his apparent lapses in memory—a lifetime of drinking probably didn’t help—and, not least of all, through his stubborn determination to make the 900-mile trek from Billings to Lincoln by any means necessary—even if by foot.

However, this is not to say he has parted ways with his entire bag of marbles.  A teeth-finding mission along the railroad tracks shows that Woody retains a definite and cutting wit, and several barroom episodes demonstrate that he can carry a spirited argument as well as anyone.  In short:  If his default disposition is one of confusion, he can nonetheless summon perfect lucidity when it suits him.

And so I wonder:  Is he taking advantage of his family’s assumption of his senility by taking them for a ride, if only for his own amusement?  Is he more self-aware than he is letting on, and playing it out as a means of enjoying his twilight years as much as he possibly can?

In his final HBO stand-up special—aired just four months before his death—George Carlin mused about the small, often unacknowledged benefits of advanced age, which for him largely involved the mischief you can get away with at age 70 or 80 that you can’t at 30 or 40.  These included slipping out of boring social events by claiming to be “tired,” guilt-tripping young people into carrying your luggage and (to repeat ourselves) exporting your memory to your surrounding kinfolk.

“Don’t be afraid to get old,” said Carlin.  “It’s a great time of life.  You get to take advantage of people and you’re not responsible for anything.”

Carlin was being (mostly) facetious, but I must say I rather fancy the notion that old folks would feign, or exaggerate, the effects of old age just for the fun of it.  That subversive practical joking does not end the moment you become eligible for the senior discount and the early bird special.  After all, why should it?

We young people tend to treat old people in a coddling, patronizing manner.  We speak to them in that artificially high tone of voice otherwise reserved for infants.  We refer to their age as “young” rather than “old” (as in, “he’s 90 years young!”).  We perform tasks they didn’t ask us to perform, because we assume they couldn’t possibly manage on their own.

We do these things with the noblest of intentions, but I cannot help but picture a great proportion of our elders rolling their eyes, thinking, “I’m old; I ain’t dead.”

Where this is indeed the case, old folks cheekily capitalizing on the kindness of young folks seems like the perfect revenge.  If we, as a culture, have decided that being relieved of all personal responsibility is a reward for living a good, long life, then I suppose milking this perk for all it’s worth is another one.

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