It’s possible that Alexander Panyne films just aren’t for me anymore. There was a time this wasn’t the case. I love Election to death, and quite enjoyed both Citizen Ruth and Sideways, but both About Schmidt and (especially) The Descendants just did not interest me. They clearly were films of high quality, well-acted and well shot, but the subject matter and plot structure did not engage me in the slightest. With his newest release, Nebraska, I remained a touch concerned. The trailer ran in front of pretty much every movie I saw at my local art house cinema for about two months before opening there, and can’t say I was particularly impressed by anything other than the jaunty acoustic guitar score. The idiosyncrasies of small-town living in the Midwest are not something I can necessarily identify with on a surface level. Still, the story did seem interesting, and seeing Saturday Night Live alum and general goofball Will Forte in a dramatic role was an intriguing prospect to say the least. But did it all pull together in a satisfying way? Well, maybe?
Nebraska follows the tale of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man who may or may not be suffering from some flavor of undiagnosed dementia, as he obsesses over a sweepstakes flyer he received in the mail purporting him to be a millionaire. It’s not real, of course, but the only person who doesn’t know that is Woody himself. The sweepstakes is based out of Lincoln, Nebraska, so Woody decides the only equitable thing to do is walk there (all 900 miles of it), and no matter how many times his family comes to stop him, no matter how many times he is arrested for his own safety, he will not be deterred. Eventually, his exasperated son David (nee Davey, played by Forte) decides to stop the madness and make the drive. The majority of the action (if you can call it that) takes place in Hawthorne, a little town where Woody grew up that serves as a rest stop for the two men as well as an impromptu family reunion. Things come to a head when older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Woody’s wife Kate (June Squbb) make the trip out, and the inhabitants of the town begin to hear stories of Woody’s impending financial windfall.
Dern’s portrayal of Woody is fascinating; he’s a man who seems to have all his faculties one minute, while glossing over the next. He’s a bullheaded alcoholic who is quite matter-of-fact in his belief that the sweepstakes is real, and isn’t afraid to tell anyone who comes across him of his newfound monetary boon. This tendency constantly gets him in trouble (and it’s interesting that he only tells others of what’s going on off screen, so we never hear anything in his own words), but he never seems to acknowledge anything on a surface level. It’s a thoroughly internal performance from Dern, naturalistic and understated. Because of this, the action is reserved, muted. Entire scenes go by with hardly a word exchanged between characters. The beauty of Dern’s performance lies in how convincing he makes Woody seem without going broad. He is not a particularly happy character, appearing consistently put-upon by his family when all he wants to do is go to Nebraska. The money is secondary; he doesn’t even know why he wants it or what he would do with it when he gets it. The journey is what matters. Finding a purpose to latch onto in his later years is what matters. And Davey has his own purposes for the trip, not just helping his dad, but finding something to inspire him and finding some connection to his family that may have been lacking. The sweepstakes and the money are simply a McGuffin.
It is clear that a lot of care went into the creation of Nebraska. The sparse cinematography, shot in color and summarily drained to black and white, and its stark depictions of the vast nothingness of the great flat land of the Midwest, is often haunting. The score is wonderful and weird and off-kilter but not in such a way that it calls attention to itself. Forte and Dern are great. The main antagonist (I guess), Stacy Keach’s Ed Pegram, is a ton of fun. And yet, I found myself constant checking my watch (well, pedometer; it’s a lot lower on the light pollution than a phone and who wears watches anymore?). The other characters are simply fundamentally uninteresting. Odenkirk’s other brother is little more than a sketch, as are the townsfolk from Hawthorne. All of the focus is on making Woody and Davey into compelling characters, and it feels like the rest of the cast was given the short shrift. The biggest problem is June Squibb, who is given the sort of role you expect to see in films like this as the no-nonsense older woman who tells it like she sees it and isn’t afraid of or worried about saying inappropriate things. This is a trope we see constantly, usually in more broad comedies (think the rapping grandmother in The Wedding Singer, for example), and while it has its merits in theory, it completely falls apart when subject to multiple instances of scrutiny. She’s far too shrewish in her portrayal, which actually hurts the characterization of Woody, as it created a disconnect in the sympathy department as the Kate character doesn’t come off as funny or charming, but simply annoying. The concept is that she is just as put-upon by Woody’s behavior as we can see he is by her, but the two-way street nature of the conceit is failed by the writing of the character.
So you have two legitimately interesting characters mired in a story and setting that sucks all the interest out of the screen every scene, which makes for a hugely frustrating experience. I should have liked Nebraska more than I did. I liked the first half hour of this film, but once Woody and Davey left on their odyssey, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson completely lost me. It’s a shame, but I guess Alexander Payne and I don’t operate on the same wavelength.