Nebraska (2013) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Bob Nelson

Review published December 1, 2013

Bruce Dern (Django Unchained, Bobby Z) stars as Woody Grant, an elderly, alcoholic man living in Billings, Montana who receives a sweepstakes announcement that he has won a million dollars (he doesn't read the fine print), prompting him to want to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, the headquarters of the sweepstakes company, in order to claim his prize. Will Forte (The Watch, Rock of Ages) plays Woody's long-suffering son David, who tries in vain to tell his dad that it's all just a scam to get people to subscribe to magazines, eventually ending up taking a sick day from work in order to drive him down to claim his "winnings," but in reality, he wants to make sure his father doesn't get lost or hurt in his mad quest. Along the way, the men take a bit of a detour to visit their small, old town in (fictional) Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody's million-dollar claim makes him a bit of a celebrity among his old acquaintances.

Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Paris I Love You) directs a decade-old Bob Nelson ("The Eyes of Nye") screenplay, which marks his first time not receiving a writer credit on a film he directed. However, that doesn't mean Payne isn't all over this film as a storyteller.  Payne films this road trip dramedy in rich black-and-white, perhaps echoing back to another great film about someone from the Midwest on a quest, The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy's home life on a far in Kansas is in traditional B&W photography, and her experience in the great land of Oz is in vibrant color. There's no color at the end of this rainbow for Woody, and, more than likely, no pot of gold either, as his world stays right where it starts, in bleak and dreary black and white.  And like the quest for the Oz the Magnificent himself, there's the hope of great things, but those who quest will not experience any riches except for those they suddenly realize they already have.

But, even if not a direct homage to that 1939 classic, the black and white photography evokes the 'town that time forgot' nature of Hawthorne and its denizens, who live in that small, dusty farm town of just over 1,000 residents without much to do except to work and drink, and spend time just sitting and watching time pass for others, on television or just out in their front yards. Just as it might have been shot by Hollywood in the time of Woody's youth, so too is it shot today; the Paramount logo that starts the film isn't the current one, but the one as it existed many decades ago. 

Though Nebraska is certainly a unique enough work to not consider it a retread of something else, Payne is continuing to explore certain themes he tapped into with About Schmidt over a decade before. That film, also set in large part in Payne's home state of Nebraska, also featured an elderly man who goes on a road trip to try to find some meaning to the rest of his life. That film also features the same actress playing the wife of the protagonist, Jane Squibb (Welcome to Mooseport, Meet Joe Black), though she doesn't last nearly as long in the 2002 film as she does in its brethren in spirit here.

In some ways, Nebraska is another variation on Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote" which features a similar 'mad quest' from a man stubbornly clinging to an ideal that the rest of the world sees as invalid. In both cases, perhaps a bit of dementia may be the thing that misguides them, but underneath, there is a pang of self-doubt that lingers that suggests an inner struggle between the belief in clinging to what one feels should be right and true in the world, and a cynical one in which such a notion is no longer in existence.

But, literary and cinematic allusions notwithstanding, on its surface, Nebraska is just a simple tale of a man who is struggling to find some importance and freedom in his life that he's never really had a full claim on, and a son who, in the few short days he has with him, realizes more about his taciturn father than he had ever learned during the many years growing up in his shadow. Woody, for his entire life, was just simple guy who let life dictate how things might go for him, instead of the other way around. He had several opportunities for a better life, we learn, but he continued to embrace the life he thought he deserved, unwilling to put forth the effort to stake a claim on something he'd have to fight for.

It is now, in the twilight of his life, that he thinks he has an opportunity to gain that semblance of control and freedom in his life that had always eluded him, and he clings to his ideal like a dog gnawing on a bone, not letting anyone take it away from him no matter how much they implore him to just let it die. Meanwhile, David seems to be following in his father's footsteps, nearing 40 with a disposable job and stagnating in a relationship he lets go of because, like his father, he can't make a decision without someone else making it for him.

If there is a perceptible weakness to the film that may prevent it from ranking among Payne's best in the minds of many viewers, it comes primarily in the casting choices, as some of these actors are quite limited in their range, and when scenes call for poignant delivery, their performances can only meet them halfway. Will Forte is likeable enough in the role, but his reactions don't seem to run as deeply as they should, and it is only Payne's adept direction that manages to evoke the emotion required toward the end of the film to make his own personal journey ring true.

Squibb as Woody's nagging wife, Kate, gets her share of laughs now and then, but her character feels manufactured for easy gags -- another example of the foul-mouthed granny, whose only humorous facet comes through the fact that her sometimes ill-tempered demeanor is emanating from a sweet, diminutive , elderly woman.  But, while the main roles feature veteran actors, nearly all of the smaller supporting roles are full of amateur actors -- real-life people who embody that Midwest spirit like no actor could truly capture fully -- but whose oft-awkward line-readings do manage to remind us we're watching a movie far too often to settle in comfortably for the ride.

This calls to mind the hit-and-miss nature of the humor, which does show Payne going a bit further than his simple story can handle in a reach for big laughs. In other films, such as yet another Payne-directed road trip movie, Sideways, there were certainly just as many events that play for laughs, but those seemed to stay true to the characters and the scope of the film. In Nebraska, such things as an attempt by masked men to rob Woody of his precious prize notification, or of men who break into a barn to steal an air compressor, don't quite ring true to the more wry and simple tone of the rest of the film. While others may laugh hearing meek-looking Kate mouth off profane comebacks, and in one scene, show off her goods at a cemetery, it made me wince at Payne's inability to push for easy laughs beyond the boundaries of the characterizations. While the drama of the film is sublime, it's comedy is perhaps the most uneven in Payne's esteemed career.

One more thing that may make the film a bit of a disappointment to some, perhaps, is that with each successive critical success under the belt of Alexander Payne, the more we expect as an audience, and that doesn't exactly bode in Nebraska's favor. It's perhaps the smallest Payne film in scope, and the least ambitious in story, which will make it seem like a step back for the filmmaker in terms of his prowess and ability to appeal to those beyond just lovers of quirky seriocomic films about dysfunctional families. With its methodical pace and B-&-W cinematography, it might even remind some of the works of Jim Jarmusch, who covered much of the same ground not only aesthetically, but also thematically as well. At nearly two hours in length, it might be an endurance test of sorts for those who aren't in tune with Payne's deliberately laid-back delivery.

However, as much as it might seem to languish in eventfulness and keep proper tone, Nebraska finishes up quite strong in its themes of late-life ennui and father-son bonding, enough to make it coalesce into something truly meaningful and even heartfelt in its richly cultivated melancholy. In its essential ingredients, Payne is commenting on the nature of America's Midwest itself, a region that to a large extent is like Woody -- simple, trusting, perhaps naive, unassuming, self-sacrificing, and to some part seems to have been taken advantage of repeatedly through appealing to honest convictions.

As we roam the landscape so adeptly captured by Phedon Papamichael (This is 40, The Ides of March), we can sense the slowing heartbeat of a region that time and industry continue to pass by, from the train that no longer has any cargo to haul, to the wide-open expanses full of rich land that seemingly no one cares to live in, to the scenery peppered with years-old advertising for home loans, to the desolate towns that needn't bother to pave their dusty streets for lack of future development -- horse-drawn vehicles are still a means of local transportation. It's a nostalgic eye that Payne employs, as good, hardworking people have little to look forward to but simple pleasures and (perhaps too much in some cases) alcohol. 

Payne describes Nebraska as a "Depression-era movie", which isn't describing the Great Depression of the 1930s (though the black-and-white evokes the films of its era again) so much as that which continue to be experienced, especially by the Midwest, in the more recent Great Recession years leading up to the making of this film.  Manufacturing is dwindling, as is the farming industry of the area, and many men are out of work and living with their parents, letting their minds and bodies go to waste while feeling idle and useless.  Promises of getting rich quickly spread through the area like wildfire, like the one that built up the housing bubble, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.  In one particular scene late in the film involving the trading in of foreign products for those that are American-made, Payne seems to subtly comment on what it might take to get the region going again financially.

Nebraska will likely be remembered more for Bruce Dern's strong performance at the heart of the film than it will be for most other respects, though it isn't the sort of must-see turn that will garner popular interest outside of Awards committees and longtime Dern fans. While Dern will get the accolades, it is the indelible underlying subtext regarding modern (or the lack thereof) life as it exists in many small towns in the Midwest that will ultimately prove to be Nebraska's greatest document to visit time and again.  While this type of story, like Woody, is old and simple, underneath is a richer tale of squandered opportunities and grand desires unrealized, not just for one man, but for an entire community, state, region and, perhaps, an entire country as well.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo