4 / 5 stars
Through intimate character studies such as ‘About Schmidt’, ‘The Descendants’ and ‘Sideways’, director Alexander Payne’s palette of compassionate comedy and meandering journeys have become his calling card.
He’s the nimble and nuanced auteur that prefers to approach his subjects with the kind of emotional honesty that’s difficult to articulate.
Punchlines and melodrama are eschewed for the inherent humour and sadness that simple human truths already present, and most times there’s enough poetry in those everyman narratives to win us over. Now working off a sparse yet stirring script by Bob Nelson, Payne has delivered yet another resonant look at aging and family via the wonderful ‘Nebraska’.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film is patient with its charm, but only because its poignancy comes in various shades of slow burning gray.
‘Nebraska’ purposefully takes time to linger on its timeworn subjects with frequency, and whether you’re gazing at the fading memory of small American Midwest towns or the taciturn face of irascible septuagenarian Woody Grant, the rich history ingrained in their weathered fabric is always deftly displayed.
In particular, Bruce Dern (as Woody) does a lot with his economical lines. Woody is intentionally hard to read – being a product of a time when being strong, silent and stoic was considered a manly virtue – and yet Dern manages to mine so much from body language.
Woody’s knees are shot but yet he walks with a fierce determination despite the aches, and even in moments where he seems utterly confused, the old man is still able to turn the tables on us with flashes of rebellious wit.
Bruce Dern racked up a remarkable resume during his heyday back in the ’70s and ’80s, but at the age of 77 and in the twilight of his legendary career, he’s still able to one-up himself and deliver his best performance ever. Woody elicits equal parts frustration and tenderness from his family members, and we can’t imagine any other actor his age that could play the kind of understated melancholy that Dern so beautifully exudes.
The story centers on Woody being convinced that he’s won a million dollar prize in a hokey magazine sweepstakes, and he’s decided to head from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his money.
Of course the prize is merely misleading advertising, but convincing the gullible Woody of that proves to be impossible. Woody’s decision isn’t due to dementia or depression, he’s simply an old-school type of guy who takes everyone at their word, for better or worse. And since nobody is willing to entertain his fantasy, the stubborn man is willing to make the inter-state journey on foot.
Woody wanders the highways and despite being brought home by the police several times, he’s still set on making it to Lincoln. Aggravated, Woody’s son David finally resolves to just drive him there to put an end to his father’s delusions. Played by ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Will Forte, David is the comedy’s sweet yet sad straight man. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend and he isn’t tied down by anything besides a dead-end retail job in an electronics store, so David figures why not take a weekend road trip with his dad. He knows that there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but he good-naturedly grasps at the chance to get to know his emotionally distant father a little better.
The meat of the movie lies in the pair’s detour to Woody’s homestead in Hawthorne, and this is where David begins to peel Woody’s layers. In his interactions with his father’s hilariously monosyllabic family, his two-faced hometown friends and even Woody’s teenage sweetheart (who once competed for his affections against David’s mom half a century ago), David learns how his father came to be the man that he is.
Along the way, David bonds with his uproariously sharp-tongued mother (played by a scene-stealing June Squibb) and older brother (‘Better Call Saul’s’ Bob Odenkirk) as well, proving once again that the journey is always more valuable than the destination, even if the finish line was worth a million dollars.