Alexander Payne’s new road movie returns to the Midwest.
After Peter Jackson’s shrill, turgid The Hobbit, trip movie Nebraska is so refreshing. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) starts off as a crotchety alcoholic, but becomes more likeable as the film progresses, his character slowly unfurls. It’s haunting like Bruce Springsteen’s bleak song ‘Nebraska’, but also tender, bittersweet, compassionate, and very funny.
Woody’s probably dying, but insists on walking to Lincoln, Nebraska for a scam he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstake. Son David (played by Will Forte, who in Flight of the Conchords played Ben the drycleaner who gulls Murray into thinking he’s a music producer with a big record deal) decides to indulge him, take him 750 miles, pulling a sickie from his salesman job.
David’s loyalty to his cantankerous father is touching. “A home would be in his best interest—which, let’s face it is more than he ever thought about with us,” old brother Ross (Breaking Bad’s Bob Okenkirk) snaps. Sharp-tongued wife/mother Kate (June Squibb) provides balance, comic and otherwise, to the family dynamics. There’s a hilarious scene where Kate tells avaricious extended family to “listen real good.” When long-suffering Kate finally expresses sympathy for Woody, explains his back story, it’s a potent moment.
It’s gratifying to see Squibb nominated by the Academy. However, she’s up against stiff competition with American Hustle’s hilarious Jennifer Lawrence. “The Picasso of passive aggressive karate,” Rosalyn’s rants memorably against hustler husband Irving (Christian Bale), taking him to task for his empty deals and “science oven.” Not to mention her exceptional encounters with Amy Adams’s Sydney: “I know who you are.”
Dern is in superb form. His last role was a repulsive slave owner in Quentin Tarantino’s intensely problematic Django Unchained. Known for less complex bad guys and angry rebels, Dern really appreciates director Alexander Payne’s opportunity to go beyond his iconic persona, explore new dynamic material, as he allowed Jack Nicholson in About Schimdt. Instead of “just be Jack,” “just be Dernsie.”
He shot John Wayne in The Cowboys, was directed by Hitchcock on Marnie, did ’60s biker/drug movies, and ’70s conman siblings up to mischief (with Jack Nicholson) in Curly Bob’s King of Marven Gardens. He was a Vietnam vet arguing with Jane Fonda in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (Oscar nominated), and villain Tom Buchanan in the Robert Redford Great Gatsby. Dern has had a lively career, and this may be his best yet. He wasn’t improvising for once. “I’m famous for dancing but not in this movie. It was so good on the page you just had to do it, you know?”, Dern told media at the New York Film Festival 2013. The very finely written script, nominated for the Best Original Script Oscar, is by Bob Nelson (also working with Chris Rock on an adaptation of the French film, La Premiere Etoile.)
“He’s a guy you insists you work with him [versus for]. And he is so approachable and so natural and so insistent on reality and being honest,” Dern enthused regarding Payne. He didn’t get on with his own dad; sees Payne like a father. “He lets the pictures work. It’s like watching a moving scrapbook of Ansell Adams photographs.” Indeed, Payne’s patience let’s scenes breathe, long takes to reveal the story, like eight men watching sport. It’s all beautifully lensed in black and white Cinemascope.
“Have a beer with your old man.” There are scenes with a strong sense of the wild open spaces, and paradoxical confinement, of Nebraska. Another highlight: “What have you got to say for yourself, Woody?” “Nothing.”
After winning in California (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), this is Payne’s fourth film set in his homestate of Nebraska (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schimdt). Between the sublime of New York and the ridiculousness of Vegas, there’s a lot of America, and I’m happy Payne makes films about it. Some critics say he’s condescending, a liberal snob poking fun at ordinary Americans. I thoroughly disagree. On screen in films like Nebraska, and watching him work a room of journalists at the New York Film Festival, there’s a sincere kindness to the man.