Nebraska (United States, 2013)November 25, 2013
Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, especially when a director tweaks it and plays with it. With Nebraska, Alexander Payne, working from a screenplay credited to Bob Nelson, targets a very specific slice of Americana that has often been romanticized in Norman Rockwellian fashion. His decision to make the film in black-and-white lends a timeless quality to the proceedings, and his choice of opening Nebraska with the '50s/'60s Paramount logo distances the story from the present, even though it's evident from clues (like the models of cars on the road) that this is taking place in a contemporary era. This doesn't feel like a current movie but Payne doesn't want his viewers to become lost in a yearning for simpler times. Instead, he's making a statement about the stagnation of those "old time" values and the misapprehension that just because something evokes a bygone epoch that it's necessarily "better."
As with Payne's previous films, this once crisscrosses the lines between drama and comedy without hints of awkwardness when navigating the tone shifts. The framework is a road trip - a common enough foundation for a Payne film - but the characters don't bond the way Hollywood has taught us to expect. There is some coming together, but it's mostly one sided, because one character has a reached a point in life where he simply can't change. Senility or Alzheimer's is eating away at him and, although he is mostly lucid, it's clear he's slipping away. Sad? At times. But also very, very funny in other instances.
Most of the Oscar buzz related to Nebraska will be about Bruce Dern, who plays Woody Grant, an octogenarian who by no means fits the stereotype of the "loveable old coot." He's short-tempered, stubborn, and mostly unpleasant. Dern presents Woody as someone who captures our sympathy but not necessarily our amity. He's careful to make Woody a character not a caricature. This is neither a Grumpy Old Man nor a Mr. Potter. As steady and impressive as Dern is, however, equal praise should be bestowed upon SNL veteran Will Forte who plays a straight role and shows himself to be an excellent dramatic actor. As Woody's long-suffering son, David, Forte exhibits the complexity of feelings suffered by the adult children of a deteriorating parent: guilt, frustration, anger, exasperation, and a dozen other emotions. By its nature, Forte's role is less showy than Dern's but the performance is no less adept. Finally, there's June Squibb who, as Woody's wife Kate, steals every scene in which she appears. Brass, foul-mouthed, and not afraid to speak her mind, Kate fuels a good deal of the film's comedy, although that by no means is her sole contribution.
The plot is set into motion when Woody receives a sweepstakes notice in the mail. It's one of those Publisher's Clearing House things - you "may" have won $1 million if your unique number has been selected. Woody interprets the "may" as a "have" and decides he must travel from his home in Billings, Montana to the office in Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his prize. David knows his dad hasn't won anything but agrees to drive him there anyway. Along the way, they stop off for a family visit with Woody's kin and he tells anyone who will listen that he's about to become a millionaire. When David tries to contradict him, no one listens. And that's when the vultures start to circle.
Nebraska is a rambling affair. It's about characters and dialogue. There's not much of a narrative to speak of - this is even more minimalist than About Schmidt or Sideways. It's about the interactions between people and how the scent of money can infect their neighborly ways. It makes a statement about human nature and illustrates that one doesn't have to live in a big city to be impacted by avarice.
The most moving scene in Nebraska comes when Woody, Kate, and their sons, David and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), tour the dilapidated house where Woody lived as a boy. Like a minimalist tour guide, he describes who lived in each room, but the faraway look in his eyes makes one wonder how much of him is in the present and how much has slipped into the past. It's the kind of universal experience everyone over a certain age can relate to: you can go home again but it most likely won't be the same home you left behind. The only way to time travel is through memories.
Nebraska is a unique and moving motion picture, with just enough comedy to keep it from sliding into tragedy. It fits well in Payne's oeuvre and those who enjoyed his previous outings will almost certainly appreciate this one. We need more movies like Nebraska. Unfortunately, when one considers the limited demographic likely to purchase tickets, it seems the only time we'll get to see material like this is when there are Oscar possibilities to consider. More and more, character-based storytelling is becoming a thing of a past when movies were in black-and-white even if the people inhabiting them weren't.
Nebraska (United States, 2013)
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Screenplay: Bob Nelson
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Mark Orton
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Vantage