Editor’s note: Our review of Nebraska originally ran during this year’s Cannes film festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release today.
From the old-school Paramount logo that opens the film, it’s clear that Alexander Payne’s latest has no aspirations to being a hip meditation on the turmoils of modern life in much the same way that his previous film, The Descendants did. More a quaint drama with modest ambitions that nevertheless hits a sure stride, Nebraska should please the Payne devout despite this being the first of his films which he did not also write (instead relying on a deft screenplay from Bob Nelson). Needless to say, while entrusting the words to a confidante, this is another coolly controlled, wickedly funny and subtly heartfelt drama from the master filmmaker.
Cantankerous, alcoholic, senile old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has become convinced that he has won a million dollars on account of a (clearly phony) sweepstakes certificate mailed to his home. Son David (Will Forte) and wife Kate (June Squibb) try to talk sense into Woody, but he’s having none of it; he’s going to head to Lincoln, Nebraska no matter what, so David volunteers to drive him all 850 miles, in the hope that they might get to spend some quality father-son bonding time together along the way.
This is a more slight effort than fans of Payne might be typically used to, though girded by a sure provincial charm, and in that sense it might not be a major awards player in the manner many had anticipated, that is, outside of its performances. It seems that, at least for now, major Academy Award honors are likely to continue eluding the talented director. However, despite its monochromatic presentation and throwback style – even using screen-wipes to transition scenes here and there – Nebraska is a highly irreverent, charming picture. A film about a father and son bonding during a road trip isn’t exactly the most original idea going, but it is shot through with a wealth of heart, and detours that include finding Woody’s teeth – which have incredulously been misplaced on a train track – and stealing an air compressor from an old acquaintance are pure Payne in the very best sense.
The grander themes are meanwhile handled in a suitably downplayed manner, namely David’s fear of simply turning into his dad through repeating the man’s mistakes. In this stead, Payne asks viewers a compelling question – do you want to know your parents’ pasts, even if they might well dictate what lies ahead for yourself? On the other hand, as a deadbeat father trying to atone, how do you make amends with your family? For Woody, the answer seems to be in giving his son something that extends beyond himself and his limited time left on this planet. This existential tone is tied comfortably into a depiction of small-town life that manages to be funny without outright mocking the people, evidently single-minded and narrow though their views often are.
Everyone from the leads to the local extras are superbly picked, and indeed, this is quite possibly the strongest-acted ensemble of the year so far. Bob Odenkirk is memorable in a small role as David’s older brother Ross, while prolific, legendary character actor Stacy Keach is remarkable as Ed Pegram, a former business associate of Woody’s who, believing his friend to have come into considerable wealth, feels like he is owed a due.
As for the up-front players, Dern – who quite deservedly won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance – is likely to scoop his first Oscar nomination in 35 years for his perfectly-pitched turn as the grizzled, aloof patriarch who nevertheless wears a forlorn expression beneath his straw hair and generally bedraggled appearance. Forte, meanwhile, who to many was a surprising choice for the leading role given his prominent status as a Saturday Night Live alumnus, breaks admirably with convention, functioning as a potent every-man. If his role might seem ancillary to Dern’s, that is most certainly the point, a more understated performance just as it needs to be, to give Dern the forefront.
This is to not even speak of the best of show, however, for if Dern is to become an awards darling later this year, then his screen wife, Squibb, surely must join him. Her uproariously funny turn, largely consisting of complaints about her marriage to Woody, straddles a fine line in that it rarely veers into mean-spirited cruelty, and is likely a character many viewers might see something of their own parents or grandparents in. Though somewhat browbeaten by the sheer wear and tear of living, there is clearly still some affection felt by her for a man who, it is rather amusingly implied, she simply married because he happened to be around at the time.
This crowd-pleasing journey nevertheless arrives at a pleasantly pragmatic resolution that leaves plenty – namely Woody’s alcoholism – up in the air. If we take the wry script and three central performances as givens, they are wholly accentuated by the film’s visual treats, namely some excellent location work, which Payne lingers on over long takes while still clipping along at a snappy pace. At the end of the day, Payne’s latest considers the notion of legacy with quietly heart-wrenching attention to detail, and is one of his sweetest yet most unsentimental films to date.
The Upside: Performances are outstanding across the board, from the main event that is Dern to the day-players. Characters are sharply observed and the film makes the most of its minimalist visual style to complement the unassuming nature of Lincoln.
The Downside: It might be too slight for some, and many who loved The Descendants may hope for something a little more spry and energetic (not to mention visually striking).
On the Side: June Squibb previously starred in Payne’s About Schmidt as Jack Nicholson’s wife.