Alexander Payne's ode to the Midwest takes more than a page from the Coen Brothers book, but Bruce Dern shines darkly.
Hollywood will always maintain kernel of backhanded love for America’s classic Mid-Western culture. While treating the landscape with beautiful black and white photography and its inhabitants with a bittersweet touch of kindness, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (scripted by Bob Nelson) feels like it gets its kicks from poking fun at a specific image of a simpler life that leaves a very odd taste in one’s mouth.
Elderly alcoholic Woody Grant (the legendary Bruce Dern) refuses to listen to his detractors who say the letter he received claiming he won $1,000,000 is just a scam. Determined to collect his prize, Woody sets out to walk all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. Though he’s stopped multiple times and promises to never try again, it seems Woody will only stop when he actually reaches Lincoln and gets his money. Hoping to put an end to this silliness, Woody’s son David (Saturday Night Live alum, Will Forte) agrees to drive the old man to Nebraska against the advice of his foul mouthed mother (June Squibb) and his local star brother (Bob Odenkirk).
Under the impression that the trip will actually be a great bonding experience for him and his father, David plans a stop off on their trip to Woody’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. During their stay the town’s inhabitants, including Woody’s own family, show their true colors when Woody tells them all he is about to be a brand new millionaire. Letting the charade slip too far out of his hands, David struggles to keep his father’s well being in hand, while fighting off the hordes of mild mannered locals and their greedy ways.
To me, Alexander Payne has always been a film maker who produces dark comedies; a genre that nowadays have become better known as the drama-dy. Nebraska definitely comes of a lot more like a straight out comedy, with heart. The jokes are plentiful, blatantly placed, and at times laughably surreal. There’s certainly nothing unfunny about watching Stacy Keach singing, “In the Ghetto” on a karaoke stand at a local restaurant while the majority of the town’s population chows down on prime rib and baked potatoes, but it is a marginally separate line of comedy than one is used to in a Payne film. This is in no way a negative toward the film or the film maker, but it does act as a courier for what I consider to be the film’s downside.
Nebraska has a very Coen Brothers-esque sense about it. All of the absurd, face value comedy is surrounded by very silent, dry humor about humdrum mid-western life. Where the same style garnered disdain from some when the Coen’s Fargo came out, the character distinction in that film was built in as a praising comparison, a message about the sanctity of a normal life. Nebraska’s comedic stabs about a simple life feel more rude and distasteful. Granted, I personally know nothing about the mid-western life style, but I myself felt offended by the visage of life Nebraska portrays for its characters. Still, it is not even the fact that I felt ashamed to even laugh at some of the situations presented in Nebraska that bother me most, but that the entire film feels like it was made by other people. Aside from the Coen Brothers style at times, there is a touch of Wes Anderson here and there. A director does not need to present the same film over and over, in actuality they shouldn’t. However, when someone like Alexander Payne breaks slightly away from his traditional style, mimicking that of others is a bad sign.
What will pull people to see Nebraska, though, is Bruce Dern. Younger audiences today may not be familiar with the fantastic lifer’s work beyond his role in The ‘Burbs, but for such a storied actor to take on a lead role of this kind is an automatic ticket seller. Dern is delightful and tender at times and fully sells his crippling deterioration through out the film, even if his current physical state is not that far off from his characters. In many ways, he should have been the only choice for the role as he perfectly exudes the image of man who you can’t help but fall in love with, even though he doesn’t show you enough to earn that love. All that being said, this is not an award-winning performance. The few times he has the chance to show off his subtler, gentler side are too short and too late in the game.
Counteractively, there will be many people who come to see Will Forte in a dramatic role. Yes, Nebraska is a comedy, but Will Forte is definitely the straight man of the piece. He convincingly pulls out the role with no issues, but also does nothing to solidify the performance as a career changing stroke of brilliance. Most audiences will react most of all to June Squibb’s portrayal of the carefree, curse happy wife of Woody, and mother to David. She’s crude, unapologetic, and plain out rude. Her role actually feels like a conduit for cheap and easy laughs, and while I might not agree with taking such an easy road to getting laughs, she will have people rolling on the floor; so, job well done, June.
Older audiences and film centric move goers will probably fall in love with the scenery and cinematography more than the characters. I am not sure if there is still a pocket of stubborn people out there who refuse to watch a movie because it is in black and white or made before 1985, but even those wayward souls have to admit to the pure gorgeous beauty of Nebraska’s sprawling landscapes and fertile plains. Yes, that is accomplished by the true state of the land itself, but you have to be properly schooled and talented to delivery that feeling to audiences thousands of miles away, via a camera and film.
Nebraska is a strange clump of brilliance and disdain. While my laughter was not as loud and uproarious as others, it was hard not to have a smile on my face for most of the film. Still, I felt uncomfortable at the same time and put off by too many other aspects of the finished product. Yet, much like Woody’s clearly fake winnings notice, everyone will see something different in what’s presented to them, and as long as you gain something worthwhile out of it, than even the flimsiest piece of paper, can be gold.