Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson
There is something I love about seeing a studio logo in black and white. There is something so timeless and classic about it.Nebraska, the latest from Alexander Payne, is presented in black and white and I can’t conceive of it being in color. I just do not think it would have the same affect. Woody (Dern) believes he has won a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes certificate in the mail. He is a cantankerous old man who decides to walk to Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana to collect his winnings. This seems to be the only thing he has going for himself in life, so he is determined to make it. You may be wondering what a man of his age would even do with a million dollars. Buy a truck of course! His wife Kate (Squibb) has about had it with him and his stubborn attitude.
His son David (Forte) always has to rescue him and bring him back home when he attempts his journey to Nebraska. He tries to warn him that it is all one big scam, but he won’t listen. David decides to take him on a road trip to appease him, get him out of the house, have some father/son time, and give some peace and quiet to his mother. It is not long when Woody receives a head injury that derails their trip taking them to his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska which is also where he met Kate. He tells a couple of his old buddies that he has won a million dollars, and he becomes the town celebrity. Money brings out the worst in people as various family members and his old friend Ed (Keach) want a piece of his new fortune for old unpaid debts.
It is easy to say that this is a father/son road trip movie, but there is so much more to it than that. There are many rich layers and dimensions to uncover and think about throughout the movie. These characters written by Bob Nelson are so specific and real that you cannot help but relate to one of them and understand where they are at in life. Each one of them has their own stubborn qualities, ways of living, beliefs, or setbacks. I could not help but think about my family members. Watching Bruce Dern and June Squibb brought me right back to my grandparents and what they were like when they were alive. I can even envision some of my other family members growing into these characters. There is a simple shot of the two generations of men in Woody’s family sitting watching football that was so reminiscent of family gatherings I have been to. They were mainly all quiet or passed out watching the game while the women were gabbing and cooking in the kitchen.
The landscape and architecture of Hawthorne and Billings play such a vital part of the film as well. Nebraska is not only the place Woody grew up but also the place he is going back to. Even though his destination is another city, there is the idea of going back home again for someone of his age. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael beautifully captures the Midwest in so many of his shots. The small town feel during the scenes in Hawthorne immediately took me back to Aitkin, MN where I have family.
I hope would hope that the ensemble of actors who all shine here end up with a SAG nomination for outstanding ensemble. Will Forte is known for his comedic abilities as being a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” and doing a guest spot on “30 Rock”. He leaves all of the funny voices and characters behind to play David. There is no MacGruber here. He is quite warm and touching as he tries to do what is best for his dad. It is great to see him step out of his comfort zone and prove he is capable of taking on these other types of roles. Bob Odenkirk plays the older son of Woody who is a local television anchor. Bruce Dern and June Squibb give two of my favorite performances of the year. As an actor, I could not help but watch and take in all of the choices they made as Woody and Kate. Squibb is downright hysterical the majority of the movie. Kate is blunt and brash and is not afraid to speak her mind to anyone. The harsh words she lunges at Dern had the whole theater laughing. The vulgarities and verbal tirades she goes on are priceless and are so perfect for someone her age. I remember my grandmother making some choice comments in her final years that still make me laugh. I would not be surprised if Squibb and Dern receive Oscar nominations for their work. It will be a damn shame if they don’t. Dern is quite flawless at capturing that stubborn, funny, odd, and crotchety behavior of Woody. Earlier this year he was awarded the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
If you look back at the work of Alexander Payne, you will see that his movies have these serious and dramatic story lines but are mixed well with just enough humor that can be found in those situations. Election is the only one I would actually consider a comedy. The Descendants, Sideways, and Nebraska all have these hilarious moments despite the central characters being at a crossroads facing such life changing moments or decisions. This is also the first movie in quite some time that he did not help co-write. Some critics are calling this as “Minor-Payne”, but I disagree. I personally think this is one of his stronger movies. I actually think it is better than The Descendants, but I did not obsess over it like others had.
RATING: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)