Whenever Alexander Payne or the Coen brothers release a new film, you can count on some of their critics raising the perennial charge that the filmmakers hold their characters in contempt. The criticism is especially acute when they're portraying middle- or working-class people from the Midwest.
See if these characterizations of Payne's Nebraska, which follows elderly wastrel Bruce Dern and son Will Forte on a fool's errand to claim his nonexistent sweepstakes winnings, sound familiar:
Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor
Payne shows a great deal of affection for these ornery, not always so soft-spoken Midwesterners, but he also demonstrates a fair amount of disaffection, too. In his earlier movies, especially Citizen Ruth and, to a lesser extent, About Schmidt, I thought he sometimes made fun of his characters at the expense of their humanity. The ridicule was, perhaps, his way of separating himself from them, as if to demonstrate that, though he shared their background, he was no rube. His recent movies have shucked off that attitude but it’s partially back here.
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
Plenty of artists have a love-hate relationship with where they grew up, but it takes a truly conflicted soul to make a movie like Nebraska, which seems at once to lament the demise of a way of life and say "good riddance" to those practicing it.... It's when Nebraska veers off the road, and into the one-horse town David grew up in, that condescending comedy begins to take precedence. Suddenly, the film is invaded by an army of yokel locals and money-grubbing family members, all looking for a piece of Woody’s "winnings." Payne wallows in this hick sideshow: There’s a long shot of the extended family gawking like lobotomy patients at a sports game, while another scene set in a supremely tacky restaurant/karaoke bar find Stacy Keach -- as an old, bullying business partner -- warbling out a painful rendition of "In the Ghetto."
Guy Lodge, HitFix:
It'd be unfair, after all, to suggest that Nebraska romanticizes traditional heartland values: if anything, much of the melancholy in Payne's first onscreen visit to his home state since 2002's About Schmidt (which was also, coincidentally, his last entry at Cannes) hinges on its elderly inhabitants being as pettily venal today as they were 40 years ago.
Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York:
For the most part, I found Alexander Payne's American heartland drama, Nebraska, a rank exercise in hicksploitation sentimentalism.
Richard Corliss, Time:
You have to wonder, though, whether either Montanas or Nebraskans would warm to Payne’s group portrait, which veers between social satire and deadpan contempt. Released in black-and-white, the film suggests that the region is too poor, or the inhabitants too dour, to be shown in color. (No one is likely to scan the miles of flat lands and exclaim, "What beautiful scenery!["]) Except for Woody's old Hawthorne buddy Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), whose honeyed voice conceals a vindictive sting, virtually all of the men are stolid, mean of spirt and near-mute: eight of them sit in a parlor wordlessly watching a baseball game as if auditioning for a reality show based on Grant Wood’s American Gothic. There’s little heart in Payne's heartland.
(You don't actually "have to wonder" how Montanans and Nebraskans might feel about Nebraska: You could ask them, assuming you knew any.)
Payne, who was raised in Omaha, and the Coens, from the Minnesotan suburb of St. Louis Park, are Midwesterners themselves, but that doesn't stop keep critics from concern about how they portray the region. The issue of a filmmaker's relationship to her or his characters is a complicated and important one, though reducing it to whether the filmmaker either likes or dislikes them is hopelessly reductive. (Sam Peckinpah clearly despise Dustin Hoffman's wishy-washy college prof in Straw Dogs, but that doesn't make the film any less powerful.) The Coens often traffic in highly stylized performances that verge on, or lustily embrace, the grotesque, but it's possible to love, or at least be fascinated by, a character's negative traits as well as her positive ones.
It's hard to imagine a substantial body of critics complaining that, say, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver or After Hours are contemptuous of New York City, but then we know New York from thousands upon thousands of fictional representations. More importantly, New York is tacitly understood as a synecdoche for the U.S. as a whole; it's where stories are set, unless there's a reason to do otherwise. The Midwest, by contrast, is strange and fragile, and must be protected from the depredations of major media, especially once a film transgresses the boundaries of major cities. If Nebraska were set in Omaha rather than in the sparsely populated towns between Billings and Lincoln -- or if the Coens' Fargo were not set mainly in Brainerd -- the reactions would be greatly different.
Nebraska is the first of Payne's films for which he does not have a screenplay credit, and it's thinner than most. The most damning proof comes, of all places, from the movie Blue Ruin, a bloody revenge fantasy set largely in rural Virginia. As the film's hero progresses towards his goal, he meets up with an old friend, a military veteran played by Devin Ratray, who's also one of Will Forte's venal cousins in Nebraska. Comparing the two performances, you see how constrained Ratray is in Nebraska, so much that I -- liberal Northeasterner that I am -- took him initially for a nonprofessional actor.
As momentum to Nebraska's theatrical opening built this week, critic Nick Pinkerton, an Ohio native, unleashed the following via Twitter:
Come, East Coast Media Elite, let us all band together and protect the gentle Midwesterner from the menace of Alexander Payne.
— Nick Pinkerton (@NickPinkerton) November 13, 2013
What's tricky about Payne's films, and the Coens', is that they're dialectical, which is a fancy way of saying they do two things at once. They present stereotypes, but they also undermine and complicate them, effectively urging the audience to judge characters and then proving them wrong. It's something Payne's very much aware of, as he explained to Pinkerton in a profile for the godless left-wing rag The Village Voice:
"To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, 'Yeah, but God love 'em,' that might be something particularly Midwestern," Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Payne’s films; my own relationship with his work went through the same recoil and reconsideration.
With Payne, critics have mastered the "recoil" part of the equation. Some are still working on the reconsideration.