Little "slice-of-life" movies are quite often my favorites. And I greatly admire Alexander Payne, who directed such outstanding films as "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004) and "The Descendants" (2011), and also collaborated on several of the screenplays. With "Nebraska", Payne, who is actually from Omaha, and is regarded as "the actor's director", presents this film in black-and-white to keep the focus on the characters and their stories.
There was so much buzz about "Nebraska", especially because Bruce Dern was here in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival, and we were fortunate enough to spend a few moments with him before "Nebraska" was shown. Dern is quite loquacious and charming, and I so wanted to love this movie, but I did not.
Though Mr. Dern's performance is exceptional, as is the entire cast, I found the screenplay by Bob Nelson to be overwhelmingly depressing. There is no joy in any of these characters' lives. "Nebraska" opens with Woody Grant (Dern) walking alongside a busy road in an attempt to get to Lincoln, Nebraska because he believes he has won a million dollars. His son, David (Will Forte), comes to pick him up at the police station and tries in vain to explain that the mailing he
received is nothing more than a scam.
His wife Kate (June Squibb) is sick and tired of Woody, and lets everyone know it. She wants him in a nursing home so she doesn't have to deal with his antics any longer. David's brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is all in favor of putting Woody away. But David, who has just gone through a relationship breakup, feels sorry for his father, and decides to take him from Billings, Montana, where they all reside, to Lincoln, so Woody can learn for himself that this million dollars is a hoax.
Trust me, none of these people are endearing, except maybe for David. Woody is an old son-of-a-bitch, who doesn't talk much and Kate is a complete bitch, who doesn't have a nice thing to say about anyone --- almost. These are not the kind of people you want to spend any time around, so why would you want to sit through a two hour film about them?
Unlike most of Payne's other films, the humor is almost non-existent. David's two cousins making fun of the length of time it took him to drive to their hometown on the way to Lincoln does not constitute humor. They are two worthless buffoons, indicative of many who still live at home with their elderly parents, but they are definitely NOT amusing.
The only truly funny scene has David and Ross "stealing" back what they think is Woody's air compressor which his old partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) had borrowed and never returned. Of course, once they have it, Kate and Woody inform them that they have the wrong house, so they must return it --- almost getting caught red handed by the only couple in town Kate does have anything nice to say about.
There has been Oscar talk concerning Dern's portrayal of Woody. But, when you look at some of his competition, with a few more to come, I'm not convinced this role is worthy. It's difficult to watch such bleakness without coming away feeling betrayed by the hype.
Opinion: Wait For DVD
Woody Grant thinks he just won a million dollars. Actually, he received one of those magazine sweepstakes come-ons, and in his rather feeble state of mind, he is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, even if it means getting there on foot.
Grant (Bruce Dern) lives in Billings, Montana, so to walk to Lincoln, a distance of about 750 miles, is no small task. His youngest son, David (Will Forte), ultimately drives him there. Everybody, except Woody, knows the prize announcement is a sham, but just to placate his father, and maybe spend some quality time together, David relents, despite the histrionics of the family's plump, white-haired matriarch, Kate (June Squibb).
Enroute to Lincoln, they stop off at Woody's old hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they run into people from Woody's past. When word gets out that Woody has "won" a million dollars, the buzzards come out in full force, especially Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who says Woody owes him some money from long ago.
Woody doesn't communicate as much as he grunts, grimaces, gestures and nods. He is a man of few words with a considerable drinking habit. I'm hard pressed to recall many moments where he strings together a two-sentence utterance, and you can count the times he smiles on one hand. Yet he conveys a likeability that's hard to ignore. Even as he endures taunts from others about his big "windfall", he exudes a child-like innocence that is both pitiable and endearing.
The rest of the cast, led by Forte, is a slate of characters the Coen Brothers would admire. Kate is brash, mean-spirited and not shy about offering her opinion on everything and everybody. At first I remarked to Jeanne that Squibb's performance is a bit over-the-top, but now I think it's spot on. Speaking of Jeanne, she found this movie depressing, but it contains so many amusing
episodes --- Woody's missing teeth, the brothers stealing an air compressor, the older family men sitting around the TV watching a football game --- that I found it quite entertaining.
Keach is just smarmy enough to be the primary antagonist in "Nebraska". Other standouts include David's two overweight, obnoxious cousins, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray). The most likeable character in the whole film is Peg Nagy, the small town's newspaper editor and an old flame of Woody's, who "lost out" to Kate because she wouldn't let Woody "circle the bases". She is played by Angela McEwan, a real sweetheart.
But it is Forte who, along with Dern, really shines in this film. Dustin Hoffman wouldn't have won an Oscar for "Rain Man" if it weren't for Tom Cruise playing it straight as his brother. The same is true for Forte. Without his strong "second banana" portrayal as the son struggling to understand his demented elderly father, "Nebraska" would not be the quality film it is. Director Alexander Payne ("Sideways", "The Descendants"), an Omaha native whose choice of black-and-white for this movie is perfect, has another hit on his hands, and first-time feature writer Bob Nelson clearly has his pulse on small town Americana. Being a native of South Dakota must have helped.
As for Dern, he has been touted for a Best Actor nomination --- it would be his second after "Coming Home" (1979) for which he earned a Supporting Actor nod. He won at Cannes this year, but the Academy Awards are a different ballgame.
Unfortunately for him, this is a banner year for outstanding male performances. Names like Redford, McConaughey, Hanks and Ejifor appear to be locks, with a number of big names in films yet to be released. It's still a terrific, unrestrained performance by Dern, but the 77-year-old veteran may have to be content with the defining role of his long and stellar career.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!