Alexander Payne’s new movie, “Nebraska” is about an aging Montana man named Woody (Bruce Dern) who believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes in Nebraska. He convinces his son David (Will Forte) to drive him out to collect his prize, under protest of his wife, Kate (June Squibb). Actually that’s not at all what this film is about, but it is the background of the story that allows the real plot to emerge. This is really a movie about family, love, growing old, and finding peace within oneself.
Woody hasn’t ever been a stellar man. He’s not a great husband or father, and never has been. He’s an alcoholic that doesn’t want to stop drinking, and from the looks of things, he drank away any chance that ever existed for himself to live a fruitful life. His son, David, isn’t doing too much better either, which incidentally is one of the reasons why David agrees to drive his father out to Nebraska- to escape his own dreary life for a few days. When Woody drunkenly falls and splits his head open, they decide to hold up for the weekend in one of Woody’s brother’s houses. They also arrange a get together, bringing back all that is left of Woody’s extended family, since he doesn’t pass back through this way often. This fills the film with plenty of laughs at the ridiculous family events that we have all had to endure.
“Nebraska” is what I would call a simple movie about simple people. Of course so many of these characters remind us of people we know, our own families, and even perhaps ourselves, which makes everything that much funnier to watch. The beauty of what Alexander Payne, and screenwriter Bob Nelson have done is that he has filmed in such a simple, uncomplicated style that he has actually enhanced his movie and lifted it to a higher level. It’s not a flashy “Hollywood” movie, and it fits perfectly because these characters aren’t flashy “Hollywood” people. His approach is absolutely brilliant, creating an end result that warms and delights from beginning to end.
It never hurts to have a good cast, and “Nebraska” has a great one. Bruce Dern has quite plainly never been better. He has completely transformed himself into this innocently simple man, and he genuinely seems as if he has lived the hard, pain filled life of Woody Grant. More of this role is done through actions than words, and Dern clearly knows how to evoke emotions that way. There are many scenes where he says nothing, or next to nothing, until finally releasing his one line. Whatever the goal- comedic or sadness- he hits it right on the money.
The supporting cast is equally good, headlined by Will Forte and June Squibb. Forte gets to play the lost-soul-of-a-son, wandering aimlessly through life with only his father to blame. June Squibb has the juicier role as Woody’s loud-mouthed, foul-talking wife, who has something to say about everything and everybody. She knows all the dirt and is not afraid to air things in the open. She also is extremely loving underneath her hard exterior, and Squibb plays it perfectly.
It’s hard not to be consumed by the world created in “Nebraska” because of the time and care that has been put into the entire production. The black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael makes the film feel as if you’re looking through some old photographs, and the music by Mark Orton, of the acoustic musical group Tin Hat, has a brisk, almost whimsical quality that keeps everything lighthearted. It is a film that won’t get old or tired as the years go by because it’s the irresistibly colorful characters and their real-life seeming situations that keep us smiling and laughing- even if it’s really our own lives at which we are laughing.