Aging is hard, as it accepting your lot in life. “Nebraska” adds another poignant story about life’s tragic beauty to Alexander Payne’s filmography and it’s likely the most universally accessible of all his previous efforts.
Whereas his last film, the 2011 Best Screenplay winner “The Descendants,” drew some criticism for being overly depressing, “Nebraska” has sadder moments but is much lighter in subject matter. Don’t let Payne’s choice to film in black and white fool you: this is a contemporary film that will connect with adults of all ages.
Bruce Dern and Will Forte star as father and son, Woody and David Grant, who set out from their hometown of Billings, Mont. after Woody receives a marketing sweepstakes letter telling him he’s won $1 million, though he has to go to Lincoln, Neb. to cash it. The prize is obviously a scam, but when Woody keeps sneaking out of the house in attempt to walk all the way to Lincoln, David thinks maybe a little road trip would be good for both of them. On the way, however, they’re forced to detour through the Nebraska town where Woody grew up.
Small-town jokes, sarcasm and senility humor abound, but both Payne and this spot-on script from Bob Nelson (HBO’s “Hung”) always keep the futility of this quest in perspective, and the time-tested theme of “it’s about the journey, not the destination” informs the plot’s many twists and turns, as does the basic human desire of having something to live for.
When all of Woody’s hometown friends and relatives hear that he’s won a million dollars, they take immediate interest in his return to town. His similarly quiet and stubborn brothers, former business partner (Stacy Keach)and former girlfriend all come into the picture, and then there’s the relationship between Woody and David, which goes through its own rigmarole. Woody has been an alcoholic in denial for most of his life, who never developed a relationship with his kids (David’s brother is played by “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk)and from what we can tell, spent most of his life indifferent if not regretting his marriage to Kate (June Squibb), who lambastes him at every possible moment for being useless, crazy and stubborn, like an all-too-familiar grandmother figure.
Dern’s portrayal of Woody is scary authentic. Most great performances have some kind of emotional, dramatic heft to them. Dern stays true to the inexpressive nature of his character, yet watching him you can see the seasons and the life experiences and the underlying emotion, the hardship and the regret, even though we only learn of it through dialogue or stories from other characters who knew Woody way back when. He does so much with silence and short, curt responses and that has a dramatic power of its own.
Squibb as his wife Kate is absolutely hysterical as whip-smart elderly woman with a great memory and no filter along with the most brutally honest opinions you can imagine. Nelson writes her some outstanding dialogue, but she sells it. Payne, of course, is known for getting outstanding stuff from his cast. How many others could cast Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte (“MacGruber”) and still have their film considered among the year’s best? Music and scenery play a huge role in this film as with Payne’s previous work. The black and white seems like a curious decision, and though it’s hard to argue that it was 100 percent necessary, it certainly adds to the nostalgic moments of the film such as when Woody, David and family explore parts of Woody’s past. Mark Orton’s score also adds so much to the poignancy of a film that has nothing but images of flat, rural Nebraska to try and elicit an emotional response from its audience.
At times loud and hysterical and at others quiet and sad, but so is “Nebraska” captures so much of this duality that’s so true of life itself. The longing of a child to connect with and understand a parent, and the longing of a man in the twilight of his life to find fulfillment are universal sentiments true of the young and the old. “Nebraska” certainly isn’t the flashiest or most exciting of dramatic comedies, but Payne hits all the right emotional notes with his film’s simplicity.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk