November 16, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Nebraska”


NEBRASKA:  Buy A Ticket – A Lovely, Tart Slice of Americana

An unusually strong season for American movies continues with the arrival of the simple and profound NEBRASKA, directed by Alexander Payne from a marvelous script by first-time feature writer Bob Nelson.  Among its other virtues, it manages to feature within its 114 minutes one of the year’s funniest sequences, one of its most moving, and perhaps 2013’s single best use of an expletive.

The story is straightforward:  elderly, sometimes-doddering Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who grew up in a Nebraska farming town but has lived for decades in Montana, receives a notice in the mail from a Publishers Clearinghouse-type operation that holds out the promise of a $1M jackpot.  It’s obvious to anyone who reads the fine print that there’s no real prize, but Woody isn’t a fine print kind of guy, and he becomes obsessed with the belief that he’s in fact won the money and just needs to go to the company’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up.  No longer able to drive, fading in and out of various degrees of acuity, Woody repeatedly sets out on his own to walk from Montana to Lincoln, to the frustration of his tart wife Kate (June Squibb) and sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk).  Finally David, whose own life is unraveling–his 2-year long relationship is breaking up, and he sells stereos in a market that’s going straight downhill–decides to indulge his dad, and drive him to Nebraska.  When a health scare for Woody delays them along the way and they have to hold up over a weekend, they stop at Woody’s hometown and see relatives and acquaintances who’ve barely been in touch for years and who are, in their own ways, as lost and frozen as Woody is.

Nebraska is both wintry and warm.  It’s about the decline of America’s heartland, life’s dissatisfactions, old resentments, and the approach of death, but also about dreams being realized and the bonds within a family.  Woody isn’t a kind-hearted old coot; he’s a complicated human being, with layers that David starts to uncover as he learns more about the family history.  Although he restricts himself now to a few beers, the implications are that Woody was a mean drunk throughout David’s youth, yet he was generous to his siblings, and even if he can’t articulate his yearnings, they’re impacted deep inside.  Kate is a sparkplug who has equal parts disdain and undying loyalty for her spouse, and David’s weary air of defeat is mixed with subtle strength.

After years as a cult-favorite director with superb films like Election and Citizen Ruth to his credit, Payne found commercial success with the less acerbic Sideways and The Descendants.  Nebraska is unlikely to be one of his hits, with its gorgeously stark black-and-white photography by Phedon Papamichael, a cast made up of characters middle-aged or much older, and little in the way of conventional storyline.  Nevertheless, it’s one of his best, a film that brings together his clear-eyed view of American greed and narcissism with the compassion of his more recent work.  There isn’t a false moment in its entire length, and even the lump in the throat supplied by its final sequence is well-earned.

A movie like Nebraska is colossally dependent on its performers, and the trio at its center are remarkable.  Bruce Dern has been in movies for 50 years, never a top-ranked star, typed for decades as the go-to actor for psychopaths (before this, his most famous role may have been as the first man ever to kill John Wayne on screen in 1972’s The Cowboys, although in that same era he did marvelously subtle work in films like The King of Marvin Gardens and Smile).  In Nebraska, you never catch him acting–shifting layers of dementia, craftiness, orneriness and regret wash over him in constant motion.  In 1996, Alexander Payne directed Dern’s daughter Laura to one of her best performances in Citizen Ruth, and now he’s done the same for her father.  (Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes, and should surely be in the race for the Oscar.)  Payne’s choice of Will Forte to play David was a big risk that paid off–up until now, Forte has been known strictly for the broad comedy of SNL (which introduced his signature character of MacGruber) and 30 Rock, but he turns out to have a sure feel for the slippery feelings David has for his frustrating father, and his light touch leavens the story’s underlying sadness.  (That goes as well for the choice of Odenkirk as David’s brother, who although a local TV news substitute anchor isn’t treated as comedy relief.)  June Squibb, barely in the public eye until now (she was 60 years old when she made her first movie), is simply a delight; Kate has all Nelson’s best lines, aimed at anyone who gets in her or her family’s way, and Squibb lands every one squarely.  Stacy Keach is strong as Woody’s obnoxious ex-business partner, and many of the smaller roles are filled by nonprofessional actors, all of them completely convincing.

Nebraska is beautifully crafted, not just in Papamichael’s photography, but in the production design by J. Dennis Washington, which is carefully downscale yet comfortable, and Mark Orton’s gently bouncy score.  In a movie like this, sustained more by character and mood than plot, the editing is particularly important even if it doesn’t demand attention the way it does in a fast-cut action picture, and Kevin Tent’s work is unobtrusively swift, catching each bit of character development as it flows by.

There’s likely to be a limited audience for a comedy-drama about a deluded 77-year old, and that’s a shame, because Nebraska is one of the best films of the year.  It’s a jackpot of its own.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."