For the rest of the month, we’ll be running doc options for some of the most prominent Academy Award-nominated films from 2014. The first film at the plate is Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s black-and-white travelogue through the rural midwest. It’s received raves for the script and performances, especially those from June Squibb and Bruce Dern, who have both been nominated for Oscars. The nonfiction counterpart I’ve picked for the film is probably the most tenuous doc option so far, but hear me out.
Lucky was released in 2010 to little fanfare, despite coming from director Jeffrey Blitz, whose Spellbound was one of the most popular and well-loved docs of the 2000s. The film tours the lives of a few people upon whom fate has smiled most generously, those who have pulled off the one-in-two-hundred-million chance of winning the lottery. It examines who they were before their lives were drastically upheaved, and who they are now that they’ve come into such extraordinary comfort.
As much as we like to look down on those who play the lottery, the appeal is undeniable. The rags to riches story is the American dream, and really, winning the lottery is the only way to actually achieve that dream anymore. Pulling oneself up from poverty to the upper class by one’s bootstraps is a near-total fiction. The only way you can hope to work your way into the one percent is if your life starts off with you pretty darn close to it already. But with the lottery, you really can scale from the bottom to the top of the social ladder.
So what does all of this have to do with Nebraska? Well, the story of that film touches off with Dern’s character, Woody, believing that he’s come into millions thanks to a Publisher’s Clearing House-type scam. He stubbornly insists on traveling across state lines to claim his winnings until his son finally agrees to take him. While Woody has not actually won anything, he thinks he has, and soon so do all his family and old friends who live in his hometown, where he and his son stop on their journey. The belief that he’s a sudden millionaire shifts the dynamics of Woody’s various relationships there, since a lot of people now expect him to give them a piece of his new fortune.
That same brand of envy is seen in Lucky. Kristin and Steve, who a won more-than-hundred-million-dollar jackpot, found themselves suffocated by the resentment of their neighbors and former friends. Eventually, they moved across the country to get away from the negativity. But they got off well compared to Buddy, whose family allegedly tried to kill him to get at the five million he won.
What really connects Nebraska and Lucky is their common focus on lower-middle-class life. Characters from these films could be swapped between them without audiences sensing that anything was amiss. Eccentric, elderly cat enthusiast Buddy practically feels like a twin to Woody. Woody says that he’ll do nothing with his new riches beyond buying himself a new truck, and despite his vast funds, Buddy stays in the same ramshackle house and continues to feed the local stray cats. The people in Lucky have joined the top class in name only. They’re still completely down-to-earth, or at least they were when Blitz visited them, as they were relatively fresh to their new lives.
These two movies feature characters on near-opposite ends of the money spectrum, but they are still akin in how they capture the spirit of ordinary folk. That’s why I believe they make a worthy double feature of fiction and nonfiction. It doesn’t matter the order in which one views them. Either way, you’ll get two great looks at how wealth or the prospect of wealth changes — and doesn’t change — people.