NEBRASKA Review: Everybody Wants Some
In the time I spent in the car to get to and from my screening of director Alexander Payne‘s wonderful new film, Nebraska, I could have taken a plane to actual Nebraska and seen the movie there. The one-hour ride to the theater was fine, but an unexpected snowstorm turned the one-hour return trip into a six-hour nightmare. I used those hours to reflect on what I had just witnessed.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a curmudgeonly old man who is deep into his twilight years. When the Billings, Montana resident receives a sweepstakes letter claiming he may have won one million dollars, he’s convinced it’s his for the taking and he wants to claim that prize in person. Since he is unable to drive, his plan is to walk … to Lincoln, Nebraska … to collect it. This infuriates his wife Kate (June Squibb), and perplexes his son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But his other son, David (Will Forte), takes pity on his old man, and even though he is clear with his dad that the letter is a scam, the young Mr. Grant offers to drive the elder Mr. Grant to Nebraska anyway.
Circumstances force the father and son to detour to Woody’s old home town, reuniting him with people he hasn’t seen in decades, including immediate family members and old friends. Some folks are perfectly charming. Others offer insight into Woody’s past. Others still, like Woody’s former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and Woody’s nephews Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, respectively), have designs on getting their hands on some of that fortune.
With Nebraska, Payne establishes himself as a modern-day Norman Rockwell, exchanging the static colorful ideal for a moving reality in grayscale, capturing in starkness a growing facet of modern Americana: that which suffers from the stagnation of progress and the mundanity of repetition. Not only is Woody’s hometown the land that time forgot, with its boarded stores, its rundown bars, and its tiny newspaper with a one-woman staff, its residents are the people that forgot time, destined to visit those bars and read that paper and even just sit around and watch TV, day in and day out, like the unluckiest residents of Groundhog Day ever.
In comes Woody, back from the past – old blood made new again with a million-dollar kicker, and news of his coming fortune spreads as quickly as you might expect it would in a small midwestern town where nothing exciting has happened since … well, since ever, probably.
The film, though, isn’t about money. In the era of $250MM Powerball jackpots, a million-dollar sweepstakes really isn’t much, but that’s the sneaky beauty of Payne’s film. If the prize was $250MM, Woody would be set for life and he could set up others for life as well. With “only” $1MM, the pursuit of the fortune becomes one not of riches, but of simple betterment.
Each character in this film has an unspoken idea of how they think that million dollars – or a part of it, or even the idea of it – will make them better. For Woody, having that money is about having a last chance at being a better father. For Kate, everyone’s perception of Woody’s wealth offers her a chance for pride without consequence (in the funniest of ways). For David (by way of facilitating the trip because he knows the money isn’t real), it’s about helping his father have that one last hurrah and maybe getting a little closer to the old man in the process.
For Bart and Cole and the other family members who hold their hand out for easy cash, it’s betterment through a temporary high. A few hundred or a few thousand bucks won’t do them much good, but in the short term, like a shot of whiskey, they’ll have a blast and escape their lower-middle class lives, at least briefly. As for Ed, he’s already the town’s alpha male, but he never got out, while Woody did. Lording threats over Woody’s head about entitlements from previous business dealings gives the shallow man a greater sense of self-importance because he’s able to control the once-uncontrolled.
First-time (!) screenwriter Bob Nelson‘s script is jammed with funny moments, both deadpan and brash, and he creates wonderfully tender moments as well, all without treacle. But for as good as the script is, and for as good as Payne’s direction is, the film is nothing without the formidable family trio of Forte, Squibb, and Dern.
From Forte you get a comic talent who understands deadpan and the importance of the straight man. That’s not to say he’s a Dean Martin or Bud Abbott type, because the film isn’t that kind of funny. It’s to say he fully understands the delicate humor of the film, how to pace the timing, and (most importantly) how to let the stars outshine him without trying to keep up. From Squibb, you get this wonderful hybrid of Betty White and Roseanne Barr – a kindly old woman who will cut you to the core with a word or a glance.
And then there is Dern. Like another cagey veteran this film year (Robert Redford in All Is Lost), Dern masterfully proves how less can be more. His dialogue is sparse and his delivery is pointed, but it’s the moments when he considers his surroundings – his old home town, the house where he grew up, the symbolic barstool where he has sat too many times in his life – and stares into the distance. His eyes carry the enormous weight of what must be a lifetime of regret. Those around him think he is zoning out, but he’s really honing in … on the results borne of the choices he has made in his life. Dern has given us a gift with this performance.
I’m looking forward to making another trip to Nebraska as soon as possible.