Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Kevin Kunkel
Nebraska starts with the old school painted mountains of the Paramount logo, a veiled reminder of the golden days of the USA, and jumps into an austere black-and-white landscape of Montana as Bruce Dern‘s Woody Grant stumbles down the snowy strip of government manicured grass between some train tracks and a largely vacant highway. Convinced he has won a million dollar prize, Woody’s intent on claiming his winnings in Nebraska even if that means walking the entire eight hundred mile trip on foot. A reminder of how off the tracks his life has veered, Woody sees his not-too-good-to-be-true grand prize as a means to a life he never had – a golden ticket to meaningfulness and utility long lost.
Reinvention is not that simple though, a fact illustration by the simple reality that Woody’s prize is very clearly a scam – the stuff of Mega Sweepstakes mailing centers intent on pawning off China-made trinkets or magazine subscriptions. His family knows the truth of this hollow sham and treats his bullheaded demand to head southeast as a warning sign that he might be more than ready for a retirement home but Woody remains steadfast in his plans for great fortune.
Not ready to admit that his dad may have one too many screws loose, David (Will Forte) knows that there is nothing to come from Woody’s scam of a prize slip and yet agrees to take his grumbling father to Nebraska as a sort of last hurrah, a goodbye bonding road trip – a final way to spend some time with his seemingly fading pops. Along the way, they stop off at Rushmore where the cantankerous Woody hysterically riffs on America’s great monument (“It doesn’t look finished to me”) before then misplacing his teeth along, yet another, set of railroad tracks. Buzzing along towards impending disappointment, the camera eyes static horizon shots, with endless stretches of bleak farmland serving as visual commentary of the washed up wasteland that industry America has become. It’s left in its place a black-and-white relic of the once prosperous plains.
In these bowels of middle America, Alexander Payne finds sidesplitting humor in banality. Scenes of awkward family tension are as side-splittingly funny as watching people on their deathbeds count their many losses is tragic. Seeing how dreams wither and disappointment sets so deep in your bones it becomes indistinguishable from your DNA may prove too heavy a task for those seeking a sunshine and smiles kind of ride. No matter how jet-black the comedy and how biting the drama, it’s the careful balance of the two that makes Payne’s admittedly glum work shine so bright. Searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Woody, and by extension Payne, sees tomorrow as an unwritten page.
Woody is a man of principles, no matter how skewed they may be and how stubbornly he sticks by them. He drinks too much and is a champion of his own independence (even though at this rate he will most like be on a Depends regiment in the next few years) but it’s clear that he is not a man who can live on his own. Enter wife Kate Grant. The realist ying to Woody’s eternally confused and tragically hopefully yang, June Squibb‘s Kate is the foundation for both Woody as a character and Dern as a performer. Without her blunt tell-em-as-it-is attitude, his blundering air-headed status would lack grounding.
Surly and confused as he may seem, Woody is more than meets the eye though, a fact that David learns when they visit Woody’s hometown. As people catch wind of Woody’s “good fortune” and flock to him looking for handouts, we see the real Woody as he welcomes family and friends coming out of the woodwork to beg like smiling buzzards. And as Woody claims his 15 minutes of fame, we also begin to realize that for all of his knuckle-headed nincompoopery, he’s a man who gives without regard, all brought to life by Dern’s hilarious and heartbreaking performance.
For this leading role, Dern is poised for some serious recognition. Even if he misses an Oscar shot (2013 has quickly become an extremely crowded year for Best Actor), he’s secure in nabbing nominations for the Indie Spirit Awards, Emmys and the like. There are few that would disagree that he’s earned it. And although her role isn’t as immediately noticeable as Dern’s, June Squibb has us convinced from moment one that she is Kate Grant. Foul-mouthed and sassy as she is heavy-set, she waddles her way to an inevitable showcase of Oscar moments and should be counted amongst those assured a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. For this part, Will Forte too becomes more than just a comedian. Although he’s the rock from which these other performers vault, his own performance is reined in and earnest – the mark of an actor who has matured greatly since his tenure as MacGruber at SNL.
Rolling sharp comedy and painstaking commentary into one is no easy task, but it’s one that Payne has all but mastered. Nebraska may not be as biting and manic as Sideways or as graceful and beautifully filmed as The Descendants but it has a life and energy all of its own, one that, much like Woody, is entirely unpredictable.