A film review by Craig J. Koban January 17, 2013 

RANK: #16


2013, R, 110 mins.


Will Forte as David Grant  /  Bruce Dern as Woody Grant  /  Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant  /  June Squibb as Kate Grant  /  Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram  /  Missy Doty as Noel

Directed by Alexander Payne  /  Written by Bob Nelson

Director Alexander Payne has always been a filmmaker that manages to bridge the always-awkward gap between heartfelt pathos and uproarious merriment in his films.  That, and his richly delineated characters always seem to be deeply flawed, endearingly odd, and broken down by life.  Payne has been accused of showing a bit too much mocking disdain for the personas that populate his films, which is a bit misleading: He shows a scathing condemnation for his characters while simultaneously showing compassion for them and their plights.   

His newest film, NEBRASKA, is no exception whatsoever.  It’s not only a bittersweet road dramady of father and sons, but it’s also a wonderfully loving ode to Payne’s roots.  This marks the third film in his “Home State Trilogy”, the other two being his 1999 high school satire ELECTION and 2003’s Jack Nicholson starring ABOUT SCHMIDT.  All of these films share the commonality of being emotionally rich portraits of their complicated and troublesome characters.  NEBRASKA is also vividly shot in a pristine aura of black and white, and this stylistic choice (alongside opening the film with the nostalgic Paramount logo of old) helps frame the film’s sense of deep-rooted melancholy and past regrets.  Beyond that, it also gives the film an ethereal timeless quality that only helps cement the thematic material of this story of an American extended family even more. 

The story – written by Bob Nelson, marking the first time that Payne directs a feature not directly based on his own screenplay – concerns Woody Grant (a note perfect and never-been-better Bruce Dern), a pathetic sad sack of an old geezer if there ever was one.  Mostly unpleasant, foul tempered, and hostile in his anti-social behavior, Woody perhaps has ample reasons for being a rude and crude SOB.  He was a Korean War veteran that saw a bit too much of the ravages of combat, which led him to becoming a chronic alcoholic for the last five decades.  In the opening of the film he embarks on a 900-mile trek – on foot, not a good idea considering his age – to journey from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska.  Why?  Well, it appears that he received an obviously phony letter claiming that he has “won” a million bucks, which must be picked up in Lincoln.  Most other people would immediately throw such a letter in the trash, but the borderline senile Woody has other plans altogether.  He wants his money. 



This greatly upsets his wife, Kate (June Squibb, so resoundingly authentic), who specializes in busting her husband’s balls with the least provocation.  News of Woody’s travels also worries his son David (played in a shockingly effective low-key performance by MACGRUBER himself, Will Forte), a down-on-his-luck electronic salesman.  He seems about as sad and dejected by life as everyone else in his family, mostly because Woody was never really a great paternal figure for him.  Nonetheless, David stops his dad for continuing on his journey, but for some odd reason, he decides that he will actually drive the crazy ol’ coot out to Lincoln.  Mind you, not because he believes that Woody has won anything.  No, he does it to placate a dying man’s wishes to go on an adventure.  Once David and Woody hop in the car and begin their odyssey to Lincoln, it’s just the beginning of a new set of mini-adventures, many of which involves pit-stop visits with their extended family. 

It would be foolish of me to spoil more of NEBRASKA, because, like all great road comedies, the pleasure of watching them lies solely in the journey towards the destination itself.  Woody and David do manage to have many a colorful exchange with family members, friends and acquaintances from the distant past, some of which actually buy Woody's story of newfound wealth.  To be fair, Payne does portray some of these people in broadly and thinly developed strokes (like a set of dimwitted twin cousins that David encounters) but Payne, in characteristic fashion, manages to expertly straddle between the film’s comic tone and its undercurrent of painful sorrow.  Just consider, for example, a scene where David shares a beer with his father and asks him point-blank about his feelings towards his mother. “You must have been in love,” he asks, but when Woody retorts with a “never came up” it immediately grounds the film’s amusing pessimism.  When its not being eccentrically funny, NEBRASKA has moments of quiet heartbreak, like when Woody takes his family on a tour of his now abandoned childhood home.  For a few fleeting minutes, you begin to understand why this man is such a petulant a-hole.  He certainly has his reasons. 

Bruce Dern has always been one of the most thanklessly decent character actors of his generation…and perhaps one of the most underappreciated.  The 77-year-old actor has spent a career chewing scenery by immersing himself in his roles, but here he creates arguably his most rounded performance to date as a wounded, frail, and emotionally and physically damaged man with on-set dementia that weaves in and out of consciousness on a daily basis.  Truth be told, Woody’s unending irritability is borderline intolerable at times, but there is a sense of lively mischievousness to his verbal attacks that makes him so paradoxically affectionate.  When not unloading quick verbal zingers, Dern lets his grizzled physicality sell individual scenes: He speaks volumes, at times, with the subtlest of sublimely rendered gestures and glances.  The longer you watch Woody in the film, the more you come to identify with him despite his blatant flaws, and that’s a testament to Dern’s serenely empowered work here.   

Payne generates strong supporting performances as well, especially from the women in the cast.  June Squibb – who was also in ABOUT SCHMIDT – has such a raw and natural spontaneity playing Woody’s long suffering wife that she doesn’t so much act in the role as she does simply become the role.  There’s also a brief, but memorable performance by Angela McEwan – playing a small town newspaper lady that covered Woody’s post-war return home – that is so superbly effectual in her moments with David.  And speaking of David, whom amongst us believed that the former SNL alumni that is Will Forte would give one of the film’s most dexterously sure-footed and unfussy performances as Woody’s increasingly exasperated son?  Casting him has proven to be one of Payne’s most successful artistic gambles ever.  Forte is good here…damn good. 

Alas, I don’t think that NEBRASKA holds up as well as the best films on Payne’s resume (which would be ELECTION, SIDEWAYS, and THE DESCENDANTS), not to mention that his sixth film as a director runs a bit too long and feels like it's taking too much time to build to something tangible.  Yet, NEBRASKA emerges as yet another affectionate ballad by its Nebraska-born filmmaker to the ordinary folk that populate his films that don’t manage to get attention elsewhere.  The film manages to be both sweetly temperamental, hysterical at times, and unexpectedly poignant without succumbing to tired conventions or falsely realized plot developments.  NEBRASKA, for the most part, feels sincere and pure, and the film’s final scene and images end the road trip of Woody and David on just the right note.  And you may not find a more likeable bastard in any film than Woody Grant.  You want to hug and slap him in equal measure.

  H O M E