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‘NEBRASKA’ (review)

Review by Caitlyn Thompson
Produced by Doug Mankoff, George Parra,
Julie M. Thompson, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, 
Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, 
Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard

Paramount Vantage / Rated R

Nebraska is the latest movie from Alexander Payne, acclaimed director of some of my favorite movies, Sideways and The Descendants.

Nebraska centers on the father-son relationship between perennial loser, David (Will Forte) and his senile, crabby father, Woody (Bruce Dern).

Woody believes that he has won a million dollar sweepstakes and will do whatever it takes to collect his prize, including walking from Montana to Nebraska.

Herein lies the story: David facilitates Woody’s relentless trek to claim the winnings in an attempt to bond with his alcoholic and aloof father.

First, Payne’s use of black and white greatly departs from his typically transfixing and gorgeous visuals (Northern California in Sideways and Hawaii for The Descendents). An old-time setting that might look majestic in color instead takes on a Depression-era feel. Through Payne’s lens, rural America feels like a land stuck in a bygone time: interiors are plain, roads are long and desolate, Woody’s hometown is static and run down – there is little motivation – folks are simply existing, not necessarily living.

Second, there is too much to say about the spectacular performances in Nebraska.

Dern’s glossy eyes and pitiful stance are adorable alongside his brief and harsh comments towards Forte. June Squibb, as the matron, Kate Grant, steals every scene she’s in with relentless nagging and a hilarious potty mouth. And of course, Bob Odenkirk is a gem as David’s condescending and successful older brother, Ross.

While I think Dern and Squibb’s performances are impeccable and award-worthy, I’d like to focus on Will Forte here. It’s not becoming unusual to see funny-guys in serious leading roles. But usually you can see the comedian behind the performance. Not in this case. Forte’s delivery, and uncertain, almost cowering body language speak volumes about his character. He really was brilliant alongside the tremendous cast.

Payne’s movies always feature a sort of underdog and in Nebraska, you’d think it’s the poor old man, but no, it’s young David who needs the journey to propel his will to live life fully.

Payne’s underdogs have included the depressed and drunk Miles (Sideways), neglectful father, Matt King (Descendants), a high school teacher who is resentful of one of his students (Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister in Election) and to a certain extent the title character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.

Their counterparts are the flawed, yet wise and vibrant, adulterous best friend and drug-addled angry daughter. These “sidekicks” are always flawed, aggravated, and brutally honest – but they do accept themselves and have an unwavering confidence that their companions lack.

In Nebraska I believe the strong counterpart is Dern’s Woody. Yes, he is old and confused and mean, but he knows it and he accepts it; he is confidently living his life and doing what he wants to do, not giving a shit along the way. David is the underdog – unmotivated, unchallenged and unhappy. Witnessing his father’s unyielding desire to collect his bogus sweepstakes, he is exposed to a confidence he has been too scared to admire or emulate.

The entire cast worked together to create a simple story of a challenging past, where grudges are always fresh, and criticism ever-present. And yet, the criticism and negativity feels poignant, almost comforting to those familiar with complex family dynamics.  

Payne’s Nebraska is another beautiful film for the filmmaker and it’s a somewhat silly family ride that’s definitely worth taking.

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