Sunday, December 8, 2013


 4 / 5 

Nebraska might be called a character study, except its main character, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is a character who has no interest in being studied.

He has little interest in anything anymore, and it's a fair question whether he ever did, except getting drunk and "screwing," as he puts it.  Those seem to be more or less the choices that he was presented with in the tiny town of Hawthorne, Neb., where he grew up.

Alexander Payne's melancholy, acutely observed film is ostensibly about Woody and his mistaken belief that he has won $1 million in a magazine sweepstakes.  Although everyone tells him that it's just a big scam, Woody is so determined in his quest to claim his prize that he sets off on foot from his home in Billings, Mont., some 900 miles away.

It turns out that Nebraska is a character study, all right, but Woody his very likely underlying mental illness, isn't the object of the greatest fascination -- it's the people who surround him, especially his immediate family.  Payne's last few films, The Descendants, Sideways and About Schmidt focused on some seriously troubled individuals, giving us sharp-edged, incredibly focused performances from George Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Jack Nicholson.

This time around, though, the lead central remains stubbornly fixed.  Bruce Dern delivers a masterful performance, but the only way it could be more restrained is to put Woody in a straitjacket.  Dern plays Woody as a man who may have some deep feelings about his life, but has never known how to show them.  He sees no point in talking about, much less revealing, emotion, and is oblivious to the pain he has caused his family.

One son (Bob Odenkirk) wants to put Woody in a home.  The other, David (Will Forte) believes his father wants nothing more than to follow a dream he has already identified as a delusion, and decides to play along with the ridiculousness, agreeing to drive Woody to Lincoln, Neb., to lay claim to the money.

Nebraska begins with some of the conventions of a road movie, but much like Sideways, the initially wacky detour to Woody's brother's house in Hawthorne becomes the heart of the movie.  It's a place where people don't ask much of life or each other, and they don't say much, either -- though Woody's wife (June Squibb) is never at a loss for words.  Despite the traditional comedy backgrounds of both Forte and Odenkirk, it's Squibb's work that provides the most amusement in an otherwise impressively, sometimes amusingly, glum movie.

Though Dern's portrayal of Woody is billed as the centerpiece of Nebraska -- and it is most certainly a terrific one, quite at odds with the intense, often manic roles Dern typically plays -- it's Forte's work that anchors the movie.  While never mocking the kind of man for whom a job selling stereos and a life in a one-bedroom apartment is good enough, Forte's David shows a deep compassion for the silent, inflexible Woody.

Driving a Kia and protecting his father from mockery might not make for a tremendously fulfilling existence, but over the course of their long weekend in Hawthorne, David begins to develop an appreciation for his father -- and the meager hopes on which his shrinking heart feeds.

Shot in widescreen black and white, Nebraska lacks the flashiness of Clooney in Hawaii, the hipster cred of Giamatti drinking wine, or the pure celebrity of a dour Nicholson.  It's a simpler movie, which isn't to say less complex, and it requires concentrated patience from the audience.  Not a lot happens on the surface of Nebraska, and it's not a story that neatly fits the traditional first-act, second-act, third-act arc of Hollywood screenplays with lots of character revelation.  It's debatable whether Woody is even aware of how his small, ordinary past continues to creep into the lives of so many others.

Written by Bob Nelson, Nebraska isn't about an American dream, it's about the lack of one.  When Woody and David finally reach their destination, it's a small, quiet letdown for everyone.  But Woody and Nebraska both will persist, finding ways to recognize that just because a life is simple, dull and uneventful doesn't mean it's without meaning.

It's Death of a Salesman without the neuroses: Attention must be paid to even the most mundane of aspirations, because everyone has a dream he'd like to chase, no matter how outlandish or unbelievable.  At least Woody has the courage to stare his down and look it in the face, which is something his exasperated son has to at least admire -- if not envy.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2013 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


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