Director Alexander Payne again takes a mismatched pair on the road for his latest film, but unlike the potted best buds of Sideways, the relationship at the heart of his Nebraska centers on a pair of near-strangers who just happen to be father and son. Nebraska picks up with the retired (and somewhat confused and ailing) Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) setting out on a hero’s quest – a walk to Nebraska from Montana to claim a promised prize, a million dollars from a sweepstakes company located in Lincoln. Woody’s journey is, of course, a totally stupid one, but his gentle youngest son David (Will Forte) grasps that his dad just needs something to do (anything, really) and, because he sort of needs the same thing to shake up his stale life, he eventually agrees to drive his dad to Nebraska.
It’s a sweet-sounding premise, but Woody is a bit of a bastard (an alcoholic who never provided much in the way of emotional warmth to his children) and David is a bit of a sad sack (his girlfriend has recently left him and his job at an electronics store doesn’t sound exactly dreamy) and so their trip is ultimately not just for fun, but for some sort of fulfillment. Waylaid early on, the Grant men soon find themselves off the road and back in Woody’s small hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. As word of Woody’s “winnings” spread around town, Nebraska effectively transitions into a very funny mediation on both families and financial demands (and how the two are able to intertwine at lightning speed).
Payne’s sensibilities and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s dry humor pair very nicely in the film, though it takes some time to get things humming along in a satisfying manner. Fortunately, the switch from “road trip” movie into family affair is an easy, believable one, and that’s when the real laughs come out. Payne and Nelson have crafted an almost too-real set of characters and locations, and the film is it at its very best when the entire Grant clan is tossed together in their quiet hometown. These people are recognizable, relatable, and familiar, but consistently great performances elevate the cast of Nebraska to something quite special and unique. Family may be alienating and infuriating, but the deeply felt characters of Nebraska rarely veer away from being oddly pleasurable to watch. Even David’s moronic cousins and Woody’s money-hungry ex-best pal (Stacy Keach, quite amusing) are fun to watch, and scenes that illustrate the horrific minutiae of family interactions are incredibly funny simply because their honesty is so real.
Payne’s use of black and white film for the production is somewhat curious – it first lends an austerity and painterly feeling to the picture before going for a sense of timelessness that’s already conveyed quite well through the narrative (families, amirite?). What the lack of color does, however, is allow the performance to pop, and pop they do.
Dern turns in one of those “height of his powers” type performances as the crochety old Woody. At turns complicated, focused, confused, proud, sad, and haunted, Woody is a familiar archetype that Dern so fully embodies that it’s hard to imagine he’s not real. Heralded as the actor’s big return to leading man status, Nebraska delivers a plum role for Dern, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity in the slightest. Forte shines in one of his first dramatic roles after his highly successful comedic run on Saturday Night Live, and his sweet, sensitive face is well suited to his role. Dern is unquestionably the main attraction here, but Forte doesn’t overstep the demands of his part and the pair’s frequent father-son interactions work very well because of that restraint.
As matriarch Kate, June Squibb is unexpectedly revelatory, particularly once the action moves to small town Hawthorne and her tendency to rail on the Grant men slowly, subtly morphs into a surprisingly fleshed out performance. She’s a pistol, that Kate, and the freedom afforded to her by going home again allows her to fire (and mouth) off in hilarious, strikingly honest ways. Supporting turns from Bob Odenkirk (as the Grants’ eldest son) and Angela McEwan as one of Woody’s former childhood paramours add nicely to the production’s very strong performance palate.
Rich, funny, and rewarding, Nebraska is a family reunion well worth the trip.
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