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Dern’s Prize Grab; Italian Beauty; Shia LaBeouf: Movies

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'The Great Beauty'
Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo in "The Great Beauty." The film is playing in New York. Photographer: Gianni Fiorito/Janus Films via Bloomberg

Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- In Alexander Payne’s heartfelt, if jerry-rigged, “Nebraska,” an old man’s newfound childlike wonder is attributed to nothing so brutal as Alzheimer’s or years of hard-drinking.

“He just believes what people tell him,” says his son, with the sort of deadpan whimsy that marks (and mars) so much of Payne’s work, from “About Schmidt” to “The Descendants.”

A late-career kiss for the Oscar-hunting Bruce Dern, the quirky “Nebraska” is less convincing as Middle-American eulogy. There’s more than a whiff of condescension here.

Dern plays Woody Grant (how’s that for American Gothic?), a grouchy Korean War vet with a shrill wife (June Squibb, stealing scenes as befits a foul-mouthed granny), two emotionally distant sons and a lifelong love of alcohol as unruly as the gray hairs sprouting from his nostrils.

Toting a junk-mail sweepstakes letter that he thinks will make him rich, Woody recruits son David (an earnest Will Forte) to embark on the 800-mile-plus road trip from Billings, Montana, to the Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.

Anywhere else but in this movie, Woody’s quest would evidence a high level of dementia. “Nebraska” is far too precious to entertain that notion.

“The guy just needs something to live for,” David tells his less understanding brother (Bob Odenkirk), and there you have the message, barely 10 minutes into the film.

Ancient Moochers

Father and son then go off-route to visit Woody’s hometown, where taciturn men have monosyllabic conversations and long-lost moochers (including Woody’s sleazy old business partner, well played by Stacy Keach) make claims on the fantasy winnings.

Of course David could clear up all misunderstandings by producing the ludicrous certificate, but that would pop the bubble that “Nebraska” so coyly blows.

Handsomely filmed in stark black and white, “Nebraska” feels artificial, an overly fanciful ode to a make-believe Midwest where folks still call underwear “bloomers” and get bees in their bonnets.

“Nebraska,” from Paramount Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Great Beauty’

As a promising young author in Rome, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) abandoned his talent to become king of the city’s high life. He never wrote a second novel, he says, because he never found “the great beauty” he was looking for.

Jep is a fool: that beauty is all around him. His breathtaking apartment overlooks the Coliseum and every palazzo he dines in, every monument he passes, even every strip club he frequents is a heavenly version of the standard model.

Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” lives up to its title: It’s resplendent, it’s ravishing. Sorrentino’s restlessly tracking camera accompanies Jep through a fantasy of Rome, devoid of graffiti, as scrubbed and sparkling as Paris.

Rather than trying to tamp down Fellini’s influence, Sorrentino puts it on ostentatious display -- in his caged society beasts, his fashion-plate clergy and faces rendered as gloriously freakish masks -- and then soars beyond it.

In the character of a witchy, century-old saint who heals the sick in Africa (where she feeds solely on roots), he moves, in four masterly steps, from weirdness to satire to enchantment to transcendence.

The startling appearance of a giraffe recalls the vision of the peacock in the snow in Fellini’s “Amarcord.” Sorrentino puts a magician among his big cast so he can have him tell Jep (after he makes the animal vanish), “It’s just a trick.” Jep, thinking at last about another novel, applies those words to art.

It’s a trick, and it’s a great deal more.

“The Great Beauty,” from Janus Films, is playing in New York. Rating: ***** (Seligman)

‘Charlie Countryman’

Shia LaBeouf, in the aimless adventure “Charlie Countryman,” can see dead people, until it no longer suits the plot.

LaBeouf plays the title character, a rudderless, amiable Chicago slacker whose just-deceased mom (Melissa Leo) pays one last, advice-filled visit.

“Go to Bucharest,” she says, with no further explanation.

Charlie encounters his second ghost on the flight over, after a chatty old Romanian reaches his final destination well before the plane lands.

At the dead man’s request, Charlie seeks out Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood, with raccoon eye shadow and heavy accent), plunging headlong into a cat-and-mouse game with Gabi’s violent husband (Mads Mikkelsen).

LaBeouf is his usual cocky, watchable self, but “Charlie Countryman” can’t concoct any credible reason for him or us to stay abroad.

“Charlie Countryman,” from Millennium Entertainment, is playing in select theaters and on VOD platforms. Rating: *1/2 (Evans)


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Evans in New York at gevans02@bloomberg.net; Craig Seligman in New York at cseligman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net

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