I really have no business critiquing a film directed by Alexander Payne. At this point, he could literally film a pile of dog shit for two hours, and I’d probably give it a solid three out of five stars. What can I say? I’m a fan. And perhaps being an ardent fan of someone can get in the way of assessing their work in the level-headed manner that we strive for at Mildly Pleased. But regardless, I think Payne has done a wonderful job of staying true to his distinctive style of making deft, existential comedies that are rife with an underlying sadness. And though this is the first film of Payne’s that he didn’t write, with it’s overt Nebraska setting and colorful midwestern characters, it’s hard to mistake it as the work of anyone else.
Still, as a lifelong fan of the Seattle-based sketch show Almost Live!, I feel obligated to point out that the script was written by Almost Live! alum Bob Nelson, who’s deadpan touch seems particularly suited for Payne’s version of middle America. At the center of this script lies Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an absent-minded old bastard who may or may not be suffering from some form of dementia. Woody thinks he’s won a million bucks in a scam Mega Millions Sweepstakes prize, and wants nothing more than to make the drive from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim his fortune. Recognizing that the trip would do the old fool some good, Woody’s son (Will Forte) takes it upon himself to drive him to Lincoln. Though after several mishaps, the two end up staying in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he’s forced to face his past and all the people he’s fucked over.
First of all, I’ll say that Bruce Dern’s performance in the film is pretty incredible. It’s somewhat rare when we get a movie that stars anyone over 50, but it’s even rarer when we get to see someone in that age range who’s not a bona fide “movie star” merely trying to pull off that old charm. Dern has none of that, as there’s a well-worn scraggliness in his demeanor and a vacant helplessness in the man’s eyes that truly makes it feel like he’s living this character. And the performances all around are pretty great, with a particularly memorable turn from June Squibb, who’s one of the more broadly comedic characters in the film, yet I still found it hard not to be reminded of some of my Midwestern relatives while watching her.
Which leads me to the most common complaint that I’ve heard from Payne detractors, and that’s the idea that Payne is often condescending towards the characters in his films. As I’ve already hinted at, I’m probably not the best person to argue against this accusation, since I’m an avowed Payniac. Yet I think you just have to look at the fact that in Nebraska, Payne once again decided to cast a bunch of local non-actors in many of the smaller roles to give it that extra bit of authenticity, not that the film necessarily needs it. So to me it seems apparent that Payne has a genuine camaraderie and affection for these people, it just happens that he also has a knack for pointing out that there’s something singularly funny about the Midwestern way of life.
As is the case with any Payne film, there’s an undeniable amount of melancholy bubbling underneath the surface of Nebraska‘s quirky characters and subtle comedic set pieces. This is driven home further by the film’s striking cinematography, which isn’t so much black & white as it is grey & grey. Which I’m sure could make some viewers look at the film as an altogether depressing affair. Though as I mentioned earlier, I’ve still got plenty of family in the Midwest, so getting to spend time with these characters had quite the opposite effect, evoking instead this weird sense of familial warmth and quiet dignity.