Watching “Nebraska,” the new film from director Alexander Payne, is a bit like flying home to visit your family at Christmas. You’ll laugh, you’ll get weepy, you’ll love till it hurts, and you’ll probably — more than once — feel an intense desire to punch someone in the face. “Nebraska,” in short, takes every emotion and experience of a family get-together and paints them liberally, with both Midwestern grit and artistic nuance, into a breezy 110-minute film. It’s deliriously good.
The film stars acting legend Bruce Dern (you may recognize him from a brutal cameo in “Django Unchained”) as Woody Grant, a crotchety, increasingly senile old man on a mission: to get from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim $1 million from one of those bogus sweepstake ads. Along the way, he visits his rapidly disappearing hometown in addition to his equally antiquated extended family. Dern carries the film with equal parts hardheaded swagger and fragile vulnerability: a role that truly shows his talents as an actor. Dern won a well-deserved Palm d’Or, the highest prized award, at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance. I’ll be shocked if he isn’t considered an Oscar frontrunner.
Despite his lofty win, Dern spoke humbly about his achievement as a reflection of the entire film, praising writer Bob Nelson’s script: “The French — they got it, which surprised me because they’re reading subtitles…You just do the story; the story’s on the page.”
The film is shot in black and white, which, although probably not essential, does give the viewer the sense of the stark, disappearing Midwest.
The film also stars Will Forte as David Grant, Woody’s youngest son, who agrees to drive him to Nebraska. Forte, best known for his wacky characters and impersonations on “Saturday Night Live,” proves that he is perfectly capable of providing some seriousness. His performance is completely genuine, and I look forward to seeing more of him in similar roles.
Fortunately, despite getting teased from Dern (“He’s out in Cloudy with Meatballs Part Two — I mean, how dramatic do you want him to be?”), Forte seemed enthusiastic about this change of pace for his career. “I’m really so proud to be in this movie. I would love to have more opportunities like this,” said Forte.
The supporting cast is top notch as well. June Squibb plays Kate Grant — Woody’s wife and David’s mother — a foul-mouthed, miserably married woman dealing with Woody’s dementia and pig-headedness. Squibb is a true, live wire.
Stacy Keach also makes a memorable appearance as the scheming Ed Peagram, Woody’s old business partner. Despite acting pleasant and pleased for Woody, Peagram quickly takes advantage of him, trying to weasel out a cut of the money. When asked if either of them had experienced a similar kind of pressure, Forte and Dern had differing responses. Forte complimented his friends and explained his growing ability to choose the right people with whom to spend time: “I have a wonderful group of friends. You just kind of evolve as a friend-chooser.” Dern, however, has gotten plenty of requests. “Can you get me an interview with him? Can I meet Jack [Nicholson]? They press their advantage.” Dern also admitted, with a wry smile, of being “just as much a whore as anybody.” He once crossed off Harry Dean Stanton’s name from a casting director’s register and put his own name down, taking Stanton’s prime 3 o’clock slot.
Overall, “Nebraska” is excellent at creating comedy out of everyday family experiences. Nothing feels forced and most of the jokes are simple — the kind of thing that would naturally happen and cause a quick giggle to ripple across a dinner table. (You couldn’t keep a straight face if you heard a karaoke version of “In the Ghetto” at a cheap steakhouse, could you?) The obvious contrast between Woody’s sons and his Nebraskan relatives also provides some of the funniest moments in the film, as does Woody’s increasingly poor ability to pay attention.
The film is shot in black and white, which, although probably not essential, does give the viewer the sense of the stark, disappearing Midwest. It also contributes to the difficult relationship between Woody and his son. Alexander Payne’s film is very nuanced, with nearly every shot set up to provide artistic or emotional depth. It is a graceful film, full of warmth and heart, and one that anyone could and should enjoy.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures