The holiday season is a time to reflect on all that we have and appreciate the company that we share in both family and friends. So obviously the perfect film for this time of year would be one where every character hates each other, right?
Following in the tradition of Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a tale of a troubled family that tries to make the most out of their remaining time together–without driving each other crazy in the process.
Unlike its title suggests, Nebraska, in fact, opens in Montana. The scruffy and wire-haired Woody Grant (portrayed by Bruce Dern), an elderly and “semi-coherent” alcoholic, hobbles his way down the interstate before being dragged home by his youngest son, the soft-spoken David (Will Forte). Woody explains that he’s on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to pick up his $1 million winnings from a publishing firm, which he says he’ll use to buy himself a new truck (even though he can’t drive). Ignoring the warnings that it’s a scam, Woody attempts to escape to Lincoln time and time again, much to the despise of his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his distraught wife, Kate (June Squibb). Eventually, David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln to set his mind at ease, with the hopes of also catching up on some father-son bonding.
During their pitstops the duo divulges in drunken quarreling, family history, and even a trip to the hospital. Before reaching Lincoln they stop in Woody’s small Nebraskan hometown where word spreads about his supposed big winnings. This prompts a spontaneous family reunion where all of Woody’s relatives congratulate him on his new fortune. However David soon learns that his father’s hometown is full of hidden intentions, and that everyone’s friendliness is not as genuine as it seems.
With Nebraska, Payne continues in his observations of the dysfunctional family archetype in a dichotomous way. At times the Grant family’s struggles seem bloated to the point of parody, but the down-to-earth performances of the actors drag them back to reality. While it is nostalgic of the director’s other works that detail troubled relationships it doesn’t necessarily try anything new. However, the result is still an offbeat, funny, and strangely believable family infrastructure.
The film establishes a quaint tone through its black-and-white cinematography and long editing transitions, as if harkening back to a bygone era of filmmaking. However, unlike other recent monochromatic hits, Nebraska isn’t trying to make a replica of the films of yesteryear so much as it is simply establishing a sense of longing for them. Perhaps this parallels the film’s focus on the older generation: as the film reminisces about stark color contrasts and lengthy dissolves, Woody and his family think back to their early years–from Woody’s time in his hometown to Kate remembering that everyone wanted to “get in her bloomers”.
Dern portrays Woody with both dramatic power and comedic skill. His character’s grasp on reality is as wispy as his remaining head of hair. He is a defeated man but is too oblivious to notice it. His disconnectedness provides moments of laughter yet intersperses them with sharp moments of despair, as we see his relationships with his son, his extended family, and his friends all slowly unravel around him.
Forte gives a competent dramatic performance as David, a struggling middle-aged man who’s down on his luck with both employment and romance. He portrays an inner struggle with impressive subtlety, juggling his character’s desire for a meaningful father-son relationship while resenting Woody’s stubbornness.
Squibb singlehandedly steals the show as Woody’s loud-mouthed and opinionated wife, Kate. She’s the character most in-tune with her inevitable mortality and thus decides to let her views be heard–bar none. Her non-threatening demeanor makes her sharp attacks even more memorable, proving that even sweet old ladies can hide quite a bit of gusto.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is stuffed with his familiar theme of the dysfunctional family as well as sizable helpings of both comedy and drama. With terrific performances to round out the viewing, the result is an eccentric piece that’s dark, undemanding and still very intriguing.
Nebraska is currently playing at the Downer Theatre.