2013, R, 110 mins.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.