Thursday, November 21, 2013
Dir. Alexander Payne
4 out of 5
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) just wants to keep moving forward. After receiving a sweepstakes letter promising a $1 million prize, he starts trudging from Billings, Montana, to the contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, a destination that achieves near-mythic proportions in Nebraska, the latest film from Alexander Payne (The Descendants). Woody Grant is also in his 80s, so he doesn't get far before a highway trooper spots him on the side of the road and takes him back home. The man's pitiful quest worries his entire family, but only his youngest son, David (Will Forte), a sad-sack home theater salesman, is willing to brush aside the specter of Woody's senility in order to spend one last time attempting to connect with his dad. David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to collect his prize, an impromptu road trip that transforms a deep dive into the family's past as former denizens of the Cornhusker State. But as friends and relatives dredge up ancient history, Woody remains insistent on reaching Lincoln - after all, he's got a million bucks coming to him.
Nebraska is a film that takes its sweet time, and thank goodness. The plot meanders like a country road around the contours of Woody's life, waylaid by old grudges and still-remembered romances. A sudden injury forces Woody and David to spend a few days in their old hometown among these ghosts. Their party becomes more formidable with the addition of Kate (June Squibb), Woody's frank and domineering wife, a pistol whose zero tolerance policy regarding bullshit is a refreshing antidote to the typical onscreen portrayal of Midwestern nice. Her resolve becomes a necessity once word of Woody's windfall gets out, and friends and foe alike come calling with palms extended, claiming that the long-time alcoholic owes them for various instances in which he lost sight of his finances.
A black-and-white photo album of familial dysfunction, Nebraska is another one of Payne's hilariously deadpan odes to a supremely tacky, yet oddly gorgeous, American way of life. And while Payne sometimes seems to hold this world at arm's length solely to ease the business of laughing at it, the monochromatic imagery and stilted acting of the (surely native, probably non-professional) bit players gives the movie a defiantly unpolished vibe that perfectly fits its celebration of the mundane: the type of movie in which a stolen air compressor transforms into a talisman of family honor. Meanwhile, Dern's performance is something beautiful, a masterstroke of addled inactivity devoid of any manufactured cuteness. When a stranger asks if Woody suffers from Alzheimer's, David says no. "He just believes what people tell him," the son insists, a fitting mantra for a character who's like a hapless knight making one last stand for the honesty of imperfection.