By Simon Miraudo
February 20, 2014
Alexander Payne is back in prime, prickly form with Nebraska, a marked improvement over his soggy, false-feeling melodrama The Descendants. It gives screen legend Bruce Dern a more-than-welcome opportunity to shine as he nears the end of his storied career, and an even more welcome leading man part to Saturday Night Live graduate Will Forte, whose heretofore unknown, non-screaming-related talents are unearthed.
Forte plays David Grant, a stereo salesman and recent dumpee whose dementia-addled dad, Woody (Dern), keeps wandering away from their home in Billings, Nebraska. His pa is convinced he’s a millionaire, having received a ‘Prize Winner’ piece of junk mail from a sweepstakes company in Lincoln. Though Woody’s uncouth wife, Kate (June Squibb), is having none of it, David is willing to play along and drive him across Nebraska to “collect” his prize. When misadventure strikes, the father-son duo has to make a stop in the ghost town of Hawthorne, where Woody grew up and where his family, friends, and enemies still reside. Woody humblebraggingly mentions the money, and the vultures (specifically some deadbeat second cousins and sex-offending nephews) begin to circle.
First-time feature screenwriter Bob Nelson paints a potent, sometimes-scathing portrait of America’s mid-west here. When his sparse script bursts into life, it’s often churlish and cutting. And yet, Nebraska is ultimately moving and humane, thanks primarily to Dern and Forte; the former entirely defanged by his ailments, and the latter a passive, despairing witness to the cruelty his father’s been subjected to all his life, by his family and especially by old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Ed informs David that he wants the newly-flush Grant family to pay his long-standing debts (this despite the fact he once “borrowed” Woody’s pricey air compressor and never thought to return it). Meanwhile, the oblivious Woody soaks in the adoration from the other townspeople, relishing the opportunity to share a drink with his son. “Be somebody,” he tells David, encouraging him to buy a beer for once, unwilling or unable to acknowledge it was his own alcoholism that turned his son away from booze, and also explaining so much about his personality, his regrets, and how much this non-existent million-dollars really means.
Payne was so great for so long and then suddenly stunk up the joint by scripting the abysmal I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and helming the sub-Cameron Crowe dramedy The Descendants. Where the platitudes in The Descendants fell flat, Nebraska is able to impart what at least seems like wisdom through its sparse, evocative storytelling. Or maybe it’s just the gorgeous cinematography that helps it seem so poetic. (Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white photography is spooky-good.) Nebraska has plenty of pathos, but Payne’s old bite is back too; precisely what made early efforts Election and Sideways stand out. His talent as an expert face-finder (or, at least his casting director’s) have not diminished either. Industry veteran Squibb, rescued from anonymity, and practically the entire town of Hawthorne have seemingly been hand-picked based on how their weathered mugs look in pristine B&W.
Nebraska has a lot of funny moments and a warm, understated ending and a few scenes with Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other, more successful son: all essential ingredients in ensuring our entertainment quota is filled. What makes it linger is the unsaid stuff from Nelson’s script (which has no time for ten-dollar words). Nebraska is about what’s truly valuable, what’s worthwhile, and what’s more precious than even all the riches: respect, begrudging respect, love, begrudging love, incorruptibility, and an old air compressor that you worked hard to pay for dammit.
Nebraska is now showing in Australian cinemas.