After a long, seven year hiatus following his best work, Sideways, Alexander Payne has delivered two films in as many years, both funny yet ruminative and thoroughly likable – first The Descendants and now Nebraska.
Nebraska is his fourth feature in a row to focus on a road trip. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has won a million dollars, though it is according to some junk mail. Nonetheless, he believes it and he is desperate to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in time to claim his prize. A little confused, he takes to walking on the roads in order to get there. His son David (Will Forte) and his wife Kate (June Squibb) are worried about him and try to convince him that he hasn’t won the money. Woody remains adamant and so David decides that driving him to Lincoln is the only way for him to see the light. Along the way, they stop off in Hawthorne for a family reunion. Woody soon becomes a celebrity in the small town as the word spreads of Woody’s good fortune.
With Nebraska, Payne continues his peculiar blend of melancholic comedy. Nebraska is slow-paced, contemplative, sad and very, very funny. It is a slight, rather whimsical story upon which is hung a poignant, nostalgic portrait of small-town America shot in grainy black and white to extenuate a feeling of loss and time passing. Payne delights in showing wide, open spaces, bare landscapes and quiet, easy-going people with simple pleasures. The film is rarely patronizing and, where a film by a different filmmaker would laugh at these characters and their foibles, Payne brings to Nebraska a lived-in, charming atmosphere. The script is left refreshingly unrushed, allowing the characters their individuality and, most importantly, their dignity. Even two minor characters introduced for a comic set piece, the Westendorfs for example (played, incidentally by a real life married couple who have never acted before), are given time to fill out their roles, becoming likable and convincing characters. What makes Nebraska work is that, despite its themes and its artistry, it is thoroughly plausible and inhabited with real people. For the majority of its running time, it does not feel like fiction.
Given this space, practically every actor shines. Bruce Dern has already won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, while Will Forte very ably meets him in a less awards-friendly role. June Squibb is very funny, performing possibly the film’s most outlandish role believably. The supporting cast are generally fantastic and some scenes work simply by letting them sit and talk. One conversation between two of Woody’s brothers is rich, hilariously funny and a conversation we have probably all been a party to – finished off with a great punchline. It is the performers that ensure that Nebraska does not become mocking or insincere, instead allowing it to be such a pleasant experience.
Though moving and emotional, the film is rarely sentimental with possibly the ending being the film’s sole diversion into the mechanics of conventional fiction, though this slight implausibility may have something to do with fantasy. Nevertheless, the film is realistic in its treatment and even has a moment now typical in Payne’s cinema, in which the protagonist does something that risks alienating some of the audience. Like Miles (Paul Giamatti) stealing money from his mother in Sideways or Matt (George Clooney) kissing another man’s wife in a rather misogynistic act of revenge in The Descendants, there is a moment in Nebraska that is deeply questionable and rather difficult to shrug off entirely. Yet this makes the film all the more believable since people habitually do things they will later regret, especially when caught up in the moment. So, while Nebraska may seem (from reading this anyway) as a harmless and sentimental old tale, it remains realistic, morally complex and far from contrived or one-note emotionally.
Nowadays, films focus on the lives of normal people so rarely that they are nearly always worthy of acclaim. Nevertheless, Nebraska is so well made and so likable that it is worthy of praise entirely on its own merits. It is remarkably refreshing to see a fiction film without murders and big dramatic scenes, but a nice, easy-going pace and a humane respect for character. To an extent, it is a difficult film to write at length about since its pleasures are only truly apparent when watching the film, making any analysis seem redundant and unhelpful. Suffice to say that it is an incredibly likable film that may even restore your faith in the decency and integrity of humanity and is, hence, a very valuable and important one.