Starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte
Home is where the heart is, and for director, Alexander Payne, that place has always been Nebraska. He’s returned to it time after time, most notably in his critically acclaimed films, ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT. Never before, however, has the city itself been a dominant character (much like New York the city was an integral lead character, if you will, in the HBO series, “Sex and the City”). In the aptly titled, NEBRASKA, Payne’s vision of his hometown is astutely and lushly shown in Cinescope black and white, heralding both the vast landscape and its weathered people. A melancholic and nostalgic tone haunts the film like the dark misty fog of memory loss that ails its lead character, Woody Grant (played by the brilliant Bruce Dern). NEBRASKA is Payne’s most mature outing and his best since SIDEWAYS.
David (Will Forte, masterfully doing a 180 from his comedic roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock”), an audio salesman, reluctantly agrees to drive his stubborn, alcoholic father, Woody, across Montana in order to collect his winnings from a direct mail million dollar sweepstakes racket. Despite objecting to the ploy of literally leading his father on, his anchorman brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk, better known to audiences as “Breaking Bad” alum Saul Goodman) and long suffering mother (the fabulous June Squibb, who was previously Jack Nicholson’s wife in ABOUT SCHMIDT) join them for the final portion of the trip in Woody and Kate’s hometown of Hawthorne. It is there that an old rivalry with a former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is rekindled and distant family members (played by veteran actors and non-actor locals alike) greedily plot to take the prize money.
What begins as a series of slight, comic set pieces, slowly ripens into a commentary on human nature, in particular the devolution of the strong, silent male archetype and, in turn, the Midwest as a bold frontier. In the days of John Wayne, men in films (typically Westerns) were personified by their rugged swaggering machismo and almost wordless bravado. They gathered in saloons to either fight with one another or to discuss fights in short, clipped deliberations over swills of ale. The arduous landscapes surrounding these men were symbolic of the durability of their populations, as well as an analogy of the tempestuous nature of American history. Fast forward half a century later. The men still occupy taverns nightly, but they and their surroundings have been changed drastically by the wars they’ve been a part of and the financial repression plaguing the country. The men have suppressed themselves and bottled their dreams and emotions. In one of NEBRASKA’s most searing moments, Payne paints a tableau of a room full of tired elderly men wordlessly drinking beer and watching a football game. They occasionally grunt small talk at one another but none are interested in chatter.
Thankfully the women of the film (in particular, the award-worthy Squibb and the luminous Angela McEwan), provide more than enough dialogue, and it is their scenes that support the film best (in much the same way, they are the necessary foundational nutrients in their respective families as well). In a heartbreaking scene (that also wordlessly comments on the devastating history of print journalism), Peg Nagy (McEwan) narrates to David her love affair with Woody prior to his marriage to Kate. She provides a much needed sentimental touching backstory and it is easy to see why he fell in love with her all those years ago. Meanwhile, Squibb easily steals every scene she’s in. Her cantankerous candour and unabashed and overt bluntness on topics ranging from her sexuality to deceased family members, brings both comedic relief and discomfort.
In his previous oeuvres, Payne’s lead characters have often been over embellished characterizations of average people. Audiences were interested and invested in their journeys, but never fully felt akin to them. In NEBRASKA, however, audiences are much more likely to feel as though these characters resemble members of their own family, with plenty of familiar awkwardness and unease, much like being at an uncomfortable family gathering. Certainly every family scene felt like home to me, and yet, there’s no place I would have rather been.