End of the year treats in ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Walter Mitty’

The year-end movie rush arrived with a vengeance as holiday feel-good and epic adventures hit the theaters along with the awards contenders squeezing in during the final weeks to gain eligibility.

While “The Hobbit” and “Frozen” were packing houses over the holiday weeks, Ben Stiller’s modern-day telling of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been charming sizable audiences of its own.

Stiller has made a career for himself playing lovable, unassuming guys who are easy to root for simple because they are so easy to identify with, and certainly Walter Mitty is an icon of such characters. Thus Stiller was smart to direct and cast himself in the title role as Walter Mitty.

This updated story of a common man who daydreams vividly of heroics and romance was penned by Steve Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” featuring Will Smith. This 21st century Mitty is an unremarkable person who has labored for 16 years within the bowels of Life magazine, handling the vast inventory of photograph negatives.

But Life, like many publications, is under new ownership and forging ahead with a transition to digital, putting the employment of many at risk. For the final print publication, the cover photo is to be one by the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the few holdovers still using film. This creates a problem when the film roll he sends to Life is missing the one photo that is to be used for the cover.

Mitty enlists the services of a co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman to whom he is enamored and is trying to hook up via online relationship matching, in helping him get that missing photo. Amid the threats of layoffs and Mitty’s own fantasy indulgences, Walter and Cheryl try to track down the world-hopping photographer. With the print deadline approaching, Walter grows more desperate to the point he takes off for Greenland, the last known location of Sean O’Connell.

“Walter Mitty” is a familiar story of a person who when pushed to the limit summons surprising resolve and courage to meet challenges. The natural charms of Stiller and Wiig lift this story that has its share of surprises. Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mother and Penn have only a few moments of screen time but they are indelible.

“Walter Mitty” is a bittersweet feel-good story. In the end, Walter and Cheryl have new obstacles to face but you know they will somehow come through.

* * *

Writer-director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself by putting on screen comedic dramas that are insightful character studies, such as “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendents.” In his latest outing, “Nebraska,” he serves as director only,¬† using a script by Bob Nelson. Despite being 57 years old, Nelson has only two other writing credits, with “Nebraska” being his first full-length movie.

“Nebraska” is the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled man in his 70s from Billings, Montana, who is convinced he has won a $1 million prize from a publishing clearing house and is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the money. Worn by years of excessive drinking and a mind that is growing more fuzzy, he believes he can just take off on foot — he no longer can drive — and trudge the hundreds of miles to Nebraska.

His stubborn actions exasperate his long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb in an Oscar-worthy performance) and youngest son David (Will Forte) to the point David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to prove that the letter he received claiming he is a winner is really just a scam.

This story is just a simple backdrop to what are the gems in the movie — marvelous interactions between the characters that are real, funny, poignant and tragic.

Dern’s Woody is a man of few words, but everything he says depicts a man who simply was not caught up in life’s complications — mostly he let his alcoholic indulgences smooth out the edges of his existence. When asked by David if he ever was in love with Kate, he shrugs it off and says the reason he married Kate was because that’s what she wanted. When asked if he planned on having two sons, he dismisses the question with the explanation, well he wanted to have sex with Kate so he figured a kid or two would be the inevitable result.

As Kate, Quibb almost steals the movie. She is brutally honest, homey, vile and yet the wise backbone of the family. In a memorable scene that is both touching and humorous, Kate, Woody and David visit a cemetery in their native town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Kate recalls these departed family members with fondness but also with stinging indictments. Her candid recollections of intimate times leave David mortified.

Nelson shows a keen eye for family relationships, especially those that were filled more with tolerance than love. Woody’s many siblings are not the kind to hug it up. To them, warm moments occur when they talk about their old cars or how many hours it takes to drive from one place to another. Woody is the quintessence of a family that just moseys along in life, never wanting to analyze anything.

For David, the trip to Nebraska is a revelation, discovering the father he never knew, and while David gains a new appreciation for who his father is, flaws and all, he has to learn to accept that Woody is never going¬† to reciprocate with any “I’m proud of you son” praises.

Wisely, Payne and Nelson do not opt for any rosy finishes. That just would not be the Grant way of doing things.

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