Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Starring: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Synopsis: An alcoholic septuagenarian (Dern) becomes obsessed with collecting a $1 million prize from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing. His son, David (Forte) tries to explain it’s a scam but as his father becomes more beset he decides to drive him to the Sweepstakes Nebraska office so he can find out for himself.
Featuring the motifs and themes of two of his most critically acclaimed films (aging and road trips from About Schmidt and Sideways, respectively), Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a great return to form. The Descendants may have included some energetic moments aside a colourful palette, but it lacked vitality. Nebraska may be a solemn, black and white drama/comedy but it contains more expression and vigour than the Clooney-led “dramedy”.
Nebraska happens to be one of the few films Payne has not written whilst directing. The writing/directing juggling act has by no means sullied the final outcome with his previous films, though there’s no doubt that Bob Nelson has allowed Payne to effortlessly focus on directing here. Nelson’s voice (surprisingly matured through only two gigs of television writing) is perfectly honed to the varying ages in the film, as well as fitting in with the tone of Payne’s oeuvre.
The lesser-experienced Nelson penning the script is not the only stand-out aspect of the film as Will Forte, mostly known for comic turns in television and film, has to share the lead with the veteran actor Bruce Dern in a genre he rarely works in. On a casting and writing level, the film is formed on unsteady ground – inexpert scribes and actors thrown into a Hollywood production with the aim to gain critical acclaim (and, to a lesser extent, commercial gross) and awards. Nevertheless, nothing feels amateur or lacking. The film is full-bodied with laughs and tears in abundance, a major contender for next year’s Academy Awards.
Dern as the confused yet headstrong father is a revelation for an actor seldom seen on our screens today. Dern has gone from the hardened bastard that once shot John Wayne in The Cowboys, to Nebraska cranky, sweet dad. He’s a mystery to both the audience and his film family, a man steeped in the tradition of keeping yourself to yourself. This protagonist is a nice change in amongst the larger-than-life, social-media obsessed society of today. He’s quiet and honest, never hiding behind a certain image, but doing and saying exactly what he wants. This is the same for June Squibb’s Kate character, married to Dern’s Woody Grant. Nearly every line is a no holds barred, extremely opinionated, quip about someone she knows. These are the characters seen at family gatherings but not so much on screen; to see them at play, as it were, is a lot of fun.
Forte similarly adds a warmth to the proceedings (joined by Bob Odenkirk who is underused and slightly miscast as a dullard). His fresh-faced appearance works as a great foil to Dern’s weathered frown. It then adds to the development of both the father and son changing through their time spent together. As Payne always asserts magnificently, it’s the evolution of persons in a short space of time that warrants a nuanced script and narrative.
It may not better his older efforts but Nebraska certainly highlights the importance of Payne in the Hollywood system. He can explore close relationships as well as Mike Leigh or Sam Mendes, always injecting a laugh-out-loud humour to boot. Some may feel the comedy is aimed at the expense of the small-town Nebraskans but from the man who grew up there, it’s merely a way to find comedy in the hoary appearance and behaviour. Looking crisp with some gorgeous photography and a fantastic score, this is an unapologetic heart-warmer from a director who hasn’t a jaded bone in his body.
Nebraska was competing in the Official Competition selection at Cannes 2013 and was winner of Best Actor for Bruce Dern