Nebraska (film review)
Nebraska (2013) Paramount Pictures
1 hr. 50 mins.
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Rance Howard
Directed by: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: R
Critic’s rating: *** ½ stars (out of 4 stars)
Cornhusker State native filmmaker Alexander Payne delivers another low-key yet top-notch character study of Midwestern malaise and familial detachment in the superb black-and-white glossy gem Nebraska. As usual, Payne skillfully examines his flawed protagonists set against his favorable backdrop of a scenic rural landscape cluttered with quirky personalities, small-time dreams and expectations not to mention the estrangements of broken individuals looking for a sense of completeness. Cleverly witty, profound and touchingly introspective, Nebraska is another off-kilter celluloid Valentine’s Day card to Payne’s observational roots involving the regional loyalties of his displaced homespun catalysts.
We find the decrepit and delusional Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) aimlessly wandering the streets in a fog-like daze of sorts. There is, however, a purpose for this disheveled senior citizen’s need to stumble along the Billings, Montana highways and byways as he concentrates on his destination in mind—Lincoln, Nebraska. For Woody, this is where his fortune awaits in the form of a million dollar sweepstakes prize notification. Unfortunately for the busted-up boozehound Woody he does not realize that the sweepstakes windfall is a scam. Still, the determined Woody unrealistically wants to claim that elusive jackpot in his home state of Nebraska even if he has to shuffle each tired step along the rough roads to get to Lincoln where his imaginary million-dollar payoff sits.
Woody’s many attempts to take off from home and retreat back to Nebraska from his Billings home has put an endless strain on his complaining wife Katie (June Squibb) who just cannot seem to get a handle on her senile husband’s roaming shenanigans. This also puts a strain on the Grant offspring in local newscaster Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and audio sales clerk David (Will Forte). Woody’s family is fed up as they try to convince the stubborn old man that his intention on chasing a financial sham in Nebraska is ridiculous. This does not matter to a dreamer such as Woody Grant as he is committed to getting there and put his hands on that money even if he has to crawl there on his numb knees.
Reluctantly, David decides to give in and drive his father Woody to get the non-existent prize money. If anything this gives David a golden chance to try and get closer to his distant and delusional father as they travel on the road together. Besides, it is also an opportunity to escape the doldrums that David is currently experiencing with his drab stereo salesman job and the recent split from his live-in girlfriend. So in many ways David needs the adventure in heading onward to Lincoln as much as his crusty old dad does. Both mother Katie and big brother Ross thinks that David catering to Woody’s false whims about this fictional sweepstakes notice is absolutely crazy.
As expected, the extensive drive and few pit stops along the way make for some interesting bonding moments as David tries to probe his father about the past experiences of his life as a young man. Woody is defiant about why David has to get so wishy-washy with such questioning. David shares his concerns with Woody’s drinking binges and hostile relationship with his equally acid-tongued mother Katie. Sadly, Woody is a stoic and blunt guy whose inability to share his feelings with David results in him becoming more crabby and close-minded.
Interestingly, things do pick up even more when the father-son duo end up briefly staying in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska where extended family, friends and associates are situated. It is here where things get out of control when the Hawthorne scuttlebutt concerning Woody’s million-dollar winnings in Lincoln makes David’s father a local celebrity. Soon, folks start coming out of the woodwork as everybody seems to want a piece of Woody’s undivided attention. First, Woody’s two shady beefy nephews Cole and Randy (Devin Ratray and Kevin Kunkel) are comically creepy and conniving about their Uncle Woody’s monetary blessings. Also, Woody’s ex-business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) celebrates his old mentor’s pending riches then hides a cynical agenda to take back some of Woody’s sweepstakes winnings for so-called debts that are nostalgically due him from days gone by.
One of the positive aspects to returning to Hawthorne is David’s “discovery” about Woody’s nostalgic background that he finds out in spite of his father’s refusal to talk about his earlier existence in the town. The town’s newspaper editor spills the beans to David about how she dated and desired Woody yet his mother Katie won over his heart instead. She volunteered how Woody was a military hero barely out of his teens and that he and his slew of brothers were not much for communicating. David even humorously learns that his mother Katie once had somewhat of an animated reputation in her early days (Katie herself gleefully recalled the times when the horny Hawthorne males would routinely entertain the notion of “getting into her pants”).
When both Katie and Ross decide to join Woody and David in Hawthorne for a big family reunion as they face down their massive bunch of opportunistic relatives looking for a handout from a million-dollar sweepstakes prize that does not even exist the tension becomes both outrageously funny and unsettlingly disturbing. As far apart and dysfunctional as Woody, Katie, Ross and David were within their family unit it feels so glorious to see them stand as one and protect Woody from the constant snippets of greed, humiliation and exploitation. In the case of the two-faced Ed Pegram, his downright bid to ridicule Woody in the wake of his sweepstakes ruse allows the kind-hearted David to salvage some honor on his father’s behalf and give something to the petty-minded Pegram to think about before publicly disgracing his father. In the final analysis, we learn why Woody Grant symbolically needs to believe in that one-million dollar sweepstakes prize—it takes both David Grant and the audience by surprise which is a tender and honest revelation.
Payne’s Nebraska certainly belongs in the company of the moviemaker’s other lauded fare such as Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants. Payne skillfully profiles and outlines the colorful dilemmas about everyday people and their predicaments and turns these ingredients into imaginative slices of revealing humanity. Filming Nebraska in its crisp black-and-white sheen enables the audience to appreciate its nostalgic elegance and sense of humble impishness.
Veteran movie and television stalwart Dern is absolutely stunning as the dejected and down-trotting Woody—a man that has nothing left to offer himself or his family but to fantasize about celebratory achievements despite drowning in quiet despair. Forte, known to many as one of the comical faces to emerge from TV’s long-running Saturday Night Live is surprisingly quite solid and affecting as the put-upon son/chaperone David that patiently taps into the wounded torment of his father. Character actress Squibb’s Katie is piercingly funny as the outspoken matriarch whose disenchantment is also complicated but she does love Woody outside of the pain that he has caused her in countless previous years. Comedian/actor Odenkirk’s Ross is an engaging hoot as the marginally successful older son/brother with media ambitions (Ross instructing his duplicitous teddy bearish cousin not to hit him in the face during a fist fight because he is on television is devilishly amusing).
Payne’s smart and resourceful direction and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s playful and perceptive script easily deems Nebraska as one of the most entertaining, off-kilter and heart-warming dramedies of this or any other movie season.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: