Film Review – Nebraska
Alexander Payne‘s filmography is akin to Wes Anderson‘s in that it’s instantly recognizable as being his own unique style. You could have plopped me in a theater seat and showed this to me sans opening credits and I like to think I could have nailed it in five. Nebraska may not share much in common with Election or Sideways aesthetically, but Payne is an unequivocal master of squirmy family dynamics and delicate poking of hometown sensibilities. He’s sometimes accused of making fun or having no sympathy for his subjects, and, while I’ve personally never agreed with such assessments, I’d challenge even the most hard-nosed naysayers to stake that claim here.
A barely recognizable Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a grizzled old coot on the verge of dementia who becomes convinced he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes after receiving a Publisher’s Clearing House-like advert in the mail. No longer able to drive, Woody makes a couple of vain attempts to walk from Montana to their home offices in Nebraska to claim his prize. His quick-to-anger wife (About Schmidt‘s June Squibb) is fed up with his shenanigans and recruits the help of their son David (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte) to talk some sense into him. Stuck at a dead-end job and recently heartbroken, David instead views this as an opportunity to split town and maybe bond with his alcoholic daddy while he still has a chance. And off to Nebraska they go.
A stop off in the small (and fictional) town of Hawthorne makes up the bulk of the picture. Much of Woody’s extended family resides there, making for awkward conversation consisting mainly of grunts and ignoring one another in favor of the television. Bob Odenkirk appears as Ross, David’s older and slightly more successful brother. Their camaraderie hints at an unusual childhood, and this is reinforced as old acquaintances of Woody come out of the wood works to fill in some gaps. A lost love, a business rivalry, a stolen air compressor. Nothing stays a secret in Hawthorne.
Throughout it all, Woody is tight-lipped and lackadaisical. Most of David’s attempts to bond with him are met with blank stares or abbreviated utterances. Once word spreads of Woody’s newfound “wealth,” old friends become new enemies in hopes of picking themselves off a chunk. In particular, Stacy Keach is wisely cast as an old colleague looking to claim a share.
Nebraska is a road trip movie and a sparse one at that. Payne is from Omaha, and his love for Nebraska shows in every beautifully shot scene. Those looking for a romp in the vein of Payne’s own Sideways may be disappointed. The film takes its time and trusts the viewers to come to their own conclusions about Woody’s motivations and supposed senility. Forte plays it mostly straight (sorry, MacGruber fans) and makes for a wonderful down-to-earth counterpart. Dern turns in fantastic work as Woody and I would be genuinely shocked if he is overlooked come Oscar season. It’s a quietly affecting role that still manages to burst with muted emotion. Nebraska is truly a winner.
FUN LOCAL SIDE NOTE: Before the movie started, I went to the facilities and who did I see? Almost Live!‘s John Keister. I did a little digging, only to discover fellow Almost Live! cast member Bob Nelson is the sole credited writer for the movie. Great work, Bob!