Directed by: Alexander Payne.
Written by: Bob Nelson.
Starring: Bruce Dern (Woody Grant), Will Forte (David Grant), June Squibb (Kate Grant), Bob Odenkirk (Ross Grant), Stacy Keach (Ed Pegram), Mary Louise Wilson (Aunt Martha), Rance Howard (Uncle Ray), Tim Driscoll (Bart), Devin Ratray (Cole), Angela McEwan (Peg Nagy), Gelndora Stitt (Aunt Betty), Elizabeth Moore (Aunt Flo), Kevin Kunkel (Cousin Randy), Dennis McCoig (Uncle Verne), Ronald Vosta (Uncle Albert), Missy Doty (Nöel), John Reynolds (Bernie Bowen).
Nebraska is a homecoming of sorts of Alexander Payne. He was born and raised in the state, and his first three films – Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999) and About Schmidt (2002) were all set there. While all three of those films were critically acclaimed (especially the latter two), there was also concern among some critics that Payne – like the shot often leveled at the Coen brothers – was mocking his characters, that he felt superior to them, and was looking down at them. I don’t remember too many people leveling that criticism at Payne’s last two films – Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), neither of which were set in his home state, but rather in California and Hawaii, but the criticism has returned with this latest film. It has never been a criticism I have fully understood – especially since it so rarely happens from a critic who is actually from the Midwest. Like the Coens, Payne specializes in characters who start off looking like caricatures, but gradually reveal hidden depths to them, becoming far more than what we first expect them to be. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nebraska – if you do not come away from Nebraska thinking Payne did nothing but mock his characters, I wonder if you were paying attention to the whole movie.
The film stars the great Bruce Dern as Woody Grant – a retired mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana with his profane, nagging wife Kate (June Squibb). The pair have two sons – Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who has made a success of himself as a local TV reporter, who may just get his shot at anchoring the local news – and is also married with a couple of kids, and David (Will Forte) who works in one of those big box stores trying to sell stereo equipment and whose girlfriend left him because she was tired of waiting to be proposed to.
Woody is old and stubborn – and possibly going a little senile. His sons have never really gotten along with Woody – he always kept his feelings to himself, drank too much and could be brutally honest – which is another way of saying he could be mean. When he gets a letter in the mail telling him he has won a million dollars and all he has to do is return this letter to Lincoln, Nebraska – with a list of the magazines he would like to subscribe to – he is determined to go there and collect his money. Everyone tells Woody it’s nothing but a scam, but he is convinced that he is a millionaire. He can longer drive, and Kate refuses to indulge his fantasy. Ross, who is fed up with the old man, agrees with her. But David thinks there is no harm in indulging the old man for a few days. He is determined to get to Nebraska by any means necessary – he keeps getting picked up on the side the road walking there – even though it’s hundreds of miles away. So David decides to take the old man to Lincoln, so he can see for himself there is no money. Through a series of unforeseen events, they cannot make to Lincoln by Friday, so they have to take a detour to Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne – where David spent his childhood, but neither of them have been in years. Woody doesn’t want to go, but they don’t have much choice. There they meet their extended family – and an old “friend” Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – and Woody becomes the talk of the town when he tells everyone he’s going to collect a million dollars. Of course, everyone believes they are entitled to share in Woody’s windfall.
This is the first film that Payne has directed that he has not also written – and yet the screenplay by Bob Nelson fits Payne just about perfectly – so perfectly in fact, that if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn Payne had written it. The film is clever and funny – yet it never veers into over the top comedy. The humor comes from its characters, and feels natural all the way through. As always, Payne gets excellent performances from his actors – even those in the smallest of roles. Woody’s large collection of brothers for example really do seem like they could be related to each other. Like Woody, these men don’t say a lot, and when they do talk, much of it is meaningless. One pair of twin cousins – are also just about perfect – natural with each other, and their banter is pitch perfect. There are other actors with just one or two scenes – an old man who comes to greet Woody on a bench, the old woman who runs the local paper, an older couple the family inadvertently comes across, who couldn’t fit in better with the rest of the movie. I’ve mentioned the Coens before in this review, and it’s natural to bring them up again here, because like them, Payne populates even these tiny roles with memorable faces and voices – these small roles have a way of sticking in your head when the movie is over. These are scenes – in particular an extended shot of all the brothers watching football – that have led some to think Payne is mocking his characters. While that scene is played for humor, there is an underlying truth to it (I may not be from the Midwest, but I certainly have been to a gathering not all that different from that one).
These small roles help to set the atmosphere that the principal cast fits into perfectly as well. I haven’t seen Stacy Keach in a film in a while (although I hear his wonderful voice every time I watch American Greed), and he makes Ed Pegram into one of the film’s most memorable characters – a man with such a sweet voice, who seems like the nicest guy in the world, until he lowers his voice just a touch and becomes menacing. Bob Odenkirk makes the most of his role as Ross – the brother who “made it”, who is sick of his old man – and bitter about past slights – but not enough to abandon him. June Squibb – who Payne memorably cast in a very small role in About Schmidt as Jack Nicholson’s wife (all these years later, I still have the image of her walking to her car, holding her keys in my head) – is a comedic firecracker as Kate. She is the broadest of the characters in the movie, and yet Squibb never goes too far. She may be a nag, but with a husband like Woody, can you really blame her? This is the type of role an older character actress never gets – Squibb knows this, and makes the most of it.
The film centers though on Bruce Dern’s Woody and Will Forte’s Dave. I wouldn’t necessarily say the pair bond over the course of the movie – that would be too sentimental for a Alexander Payne movie, but David does grow to understand his father more through the course of the trip – even if much of that understanding remains unspoken. I have no idea what made Payne think of Forte – best known for his often brilliant, but always broad, characters on Saturday Night Live – but it works wonderfully in the film. Forte underplays his role, even as he drives much of the plot (the aforementioned scene of the men watching TV together gets funnier as it goes along, if you concentrate on Forte, who never says a word). As for Dern, this may be the best performance of his long career. He has always been a great actor – but one Hollywood was never quite sure what to do with. He was at his best in the 1970s, playing slightly (or not so slightly) unhinged characters in films like Bob Rafelson’s underrated The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) or Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978). In Woody Grant, he plays a character whose life hasn’t always been great – it has been filled with disappointment and missed opportunities – and he has drank a lot to try to get over those problems. Even now, with the end near, he doesn’t bitch and complain about his life – he just wants to do what he wants. This is a role that could easily have been nothing but caricature – the old, profane coot, who ends up being lovable, but Dern - and the screenplay – make it more complicated than that. Dern refuses to sand off the rough edges of Woody – he is the same man at the end of the movie, as he was at the beginning. Yet, as we get to know him through the course of the movie, we do start to love Woody Grant – asshole that he can be. That’s a testament to Dern, who delivers one of the very best performances of the year.
The film was shot in black and white – or more accurately, grey – and that’s fitting to the rest of the movie. This is a movie about life’s disappointments, and tiny triumphs. There is no doubt that Payne isn’t romanticizing life in his home state of Nebraska – the lives of the people in his film can be dull and grey. But he isn’t mocking them either. As with all of Payne’s best films, this is one that sneaks up on you. You may well be surprised by just how moved you are by the end of this film. I was.