Director: Alexander Payne
Studio: FilmNation Entertainment
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
As he showed so beautifully in Sideways and The Descendants, the wonderful, wryly humanistic Alexander Payne has a fondness for the out of step, the overlooked and the crushed, even when he’s gently satirizing them. These hallmarks, and a couple more, are evident in Nebraska, a slow, sad, funny wild goose chase about a cantankerous retired mechanic with galloping dementia (Bruce Dern) traveling from Montana to Nebraska with his electronics salesman son (Will Forte) in a futile effort to claim one of those bogus mail coupon Million Dollar Sweepstakes award prizes. The downbound son, who’s recently been dumped by his bored and disappointed girlfriend, fully understands the road trip is a fool’s game, but he reluctantly drives the old man anyway—maybe because neither of their lives is going anywhere special, maybe because he’d like to find some connection before his dad’s marbles are fully lost. Besides, for Forte’s character, even the smallest adventure is probably preferable to the usual routine of finding his emotionally distant father passed out cold in bars, rescuing him from hoofing it on the interstate or refereeing the insults and threats between his father and his hilariously fed-up, truth-telling mother (June Squibb). Then, there’s also the chance to dodge the constant comparisons to his older, more successful brother (Bob Odenkirk).
Scripted with precision and a ferocious heart by Bob Nelson, scored with plaintive guitars by Mark Orton and shot in magnificent black and white by Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is compact, rambling and bleakly funny, casting woeful side glances at vast stretches of a boarded-up, abandoned America long past its glory days. Managing somehow to look like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, the slim narrative sends father and son on a side trip to his old hometown, where friends, enemies and rivals pop up to congratulate—and needle—him on becoming a millionaire. There’s also a great sequence involving a strained, slightly surreal visit with long-unseen family that is painfully awkward and real. The movie is about persevering, carrying on despite a world that has turned mean and hard, with options narrowing for everyone, but especially for people like these.
Nebraska rides on characters, mood and funny, diamond-hard dialogue like, when the exasperated son asks dithering dad if he ever loved his mother: “It never came up.” Or why such a neglectful, always disappointing father ever bothered to have kids in the first place: “I figured if we kept on screwing, we’d have a couple of you.” But the movie's gem is Dern. He is so small in the role that he’s gigantic. Already the winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, he doesn’t play the character, he breathes it. Dern has always been authentic, idiosyncratic and wickedly funny—always unfairly stuck in the shadow of Jack Nicholson. And as good as he's been in recent years, for instance as the horny, ramshackle husband of Grace Zabriskie on HBO’s Big Love, he doesn't so much make a comeback in Nebraska as he does finally make his debut as an iconic movie star. Take that, 77 years old.