NEBRASKA Review: Salt of the Earth, Equally Bitter and Sweet
Most movies are about people in one way or another, but it requires some digging to find filmmakers who actually seem to care about or even like their fellow human beings. One such beacon of humanism is the very talented Alexander Payne — you come away from Sideways, The Descendants, About Schmidt and even the darkly hilarious Election feeling like you not only recognize those characters but you empathize with them as well.
In Nebraska, Payne’s first feature to be made without the collaboration of his frequent co-writer Jim Taylor (first-timer Bob Nelson penned the original screenplay), that ability to make us laugh and occasionally wince and maybe even get a little damp-eyed over true moments of behavior remains in full effect. I’m frankly stunned that some critics are accusing the film of being condescending or mean-spirited; not everyone here is “nice,” granted, but no one feels like a caricature, and there’s never the feeling that Nebraska is just here to mock the rubes.
Elderly alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps getting apprehended by the police in Billings, Montana, because of his crazy obsession — he wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up the million dollars he is certain he has won, according to a sketchy sweepstakes letter. With Woody sliding into dementia and his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) fed up with a lifetime of his behavior, it’s up to Woody’s son David (SNL’s Will Forte) to volunteer to drive the old man to collect his winnings.
Stereo salesman David sees the trip as an much-needed opportunity to take a few days away from his static life — his girlfriend just moved out, suggesting they break up or get married, so long as they do something — and as a way to do some bonding with the highly irascible Woody. It’s a road trip that’s constantly interrupted with visits to shabby roadside taverns, searches for lost dentures and other mishaps, until they finally wind up in Woody’s tiny Nebraska hometown.
Word of Woody’s impending good fortune soon gets out, mainly because he can’t keep his trap shut, and the vultures start hovering, from Woody’s duplicitous former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) to various family members. (Ed Pegram is the sort of guy everyone always refers to as “Ed Pegram.”)
If you’re thinking that “road trip” and “small town” and “father-son bonding” sound like indie red flags — oh, and did I mention this was shot in black and white? — relax. You’re in skilled hands here. Payne never shoots for big, wacky moments, but if you can allow yourself to get into the film’s deliberate rhythms, it offers a trove of honest observations and satisfying (and, admittedly, occasionally acrid) laughs.
Dern has been justifiably praised for his role here, allowing himself to be just a few seconds behind at all times, and Forte’s understated turn will certainly surprise those who just think of him as MacGruber or the goofy dancing basketball coach from late-night TV.
The real standout here is veteran character actress Squibb; her character at first seems like just another squawking shrew, but while Kate may be fiercely critical of her own family, she’s also intensely protective. (Kate also never forgets a slight or a scandal, as evidenced in a hilarious visit to the family cemetery where she dishes the dirt on all the dearly departed. This is the woman you want sitting next to you at a reunion.)
I won’t give away Nebraska’s ending, but it’s up there with Frances Ha and Saving Mr. Banks as one of the most satisfying and well-earned denouements of the year. This is the sort of film that could be a real game-changer for many of its cast members, but it definitely keeps Alexander Payne’s winning streak going.