The new Alexander Payne film “Nebraska” is one of the funniest sad films I can recall, a tender and melancholy movie about a son trying to connect with a dad who is deteriorating mentally and has never been emotionally available or particularly fatherly.
The dad is played by the great Bruce Dern, and the son by Will Forte, who is best known for his comedic work on “Saturday Night Live.” Dern has been nominated for best actor and is receiving well-deserved praise for his performance, but Forte is the key to the film. We see the father, an irascible alcoholic named Woody Grant, through Forte’s eyes, and relate to every other character — Forte’s mother, his brother, his cousins and aunts and uncles — through Forte. And it is Forte who provides the emotional core of the film. There’s an aspect of Woody that is distant and unknowable. But the son, named David, is a likable everyman. He is put-upon and weary, yes, but also kind-hearted and generous and clearly trying to do right by his ailing father, who has failed him in many ways.
The plot concerns Woody’s belief that he has won $1 million. David informs him that his mass-mailed sweepstakes letter is really just a scam to trick him into buying magazines, but Woody’s having none of it, and tells David that he intends to walk to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his money. Realizing that his dad is too stubborn and addled to be reasoned with, David offers to drive Woody to Lincoln. When his mother Kate (the little-known June Squibb, in a fantastic performance) lambastes him for indulging Woody, David says, “What’s the harm in letting him have his little fantasy?” packs up the car, and takes off. Of course, Woody is not the easiest traveling companion. When David asks whether he wants to stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody replies, “It’s just a bunch of rocks,” and when they get there, he observes, “It looks unfinished.”
Woody and David end up spending a few days in the fictional town of Hawthorne, where Woody and Kate both grew up. They stay with Woody’s brother, sister-in-law and doltish nephews, and when family and old friends learn that Woody has won $1 million, old debts suddenly surface. And though David explains that Woody did not really win the lottery, nobody believes him. I won’t go into detail about how this drama plays out, other than to say that SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! the scene where Kate essentially tells Woody’s family to go to hell is a gem, as is the scene where David punches Woody’s old business partner in the face.
Payne has often been accused of condescending to and mocking his characters. I’ve never really understood this criticism, and I still don’t. An Omaha native, Payne is one of the few filmmakers who’s genuinely interested in depicting the lives of regular people who live in what the media often refers to as “flyover country.” In “Nebraska,” many of the smaller roles are filled by locals, such as retired farmers and their wives; Peg, the elderly newspaper editor who once dated Woody, is played by Angela McEwan, whose minimal acting experience includes a short film and a soap opera.
Good as Dern, Forte, Squibb and Stacy Keach (who plays the old business partner) are, it’s the non-professional actors who make “Nebraska” a truly unique viewing experience. Thanks to their presence, Hawthorne feels like a real place — an economically depressed farm community where there’s little hope of a better future. At times, David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk, also very good) appear to be the only functional adults in “Nebraska,” and it’s probably due to the fact that their parents moved away from Hawthorne when they were young and raised them elsewhere. “Nebraska” was shot in black-and-white, which lends the landscape a certain desolate beauty and gritty charm.
As the film progresses, the characters reveal hidden depths, which is part of its charm. Kate initially comes across as a nasty shrew, but eventually we learn to sympathize with her and appreciate her. Woody is a difficult husband and his alcoholism has no doubt taken its toll, and there are scenes late in the film where Kate’s bluntness and ferocity are an asset. David initially comes across as a bit of a sad-sack milquetoast, but we later see that he is compassionate loyal and guided by a strong sense of justice. The performances by the leads are uniformly excellent, and Payne deserves all the kudos he has received for his stellar casting.
For me, “Nebraska” was a slow-burn. I found it a bit slow and dry initially, but liked it more and more as I watched it. By the end of the film, I was surprised to realize how much I cared about the characters, and how real they seemed. The final scenes are immensely satisfying and will linger with me for a long time.
Ranking Alexander Payne’s films:
6. About Schmidt
5. The Descendants
4. Citizen Ruth
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