Alexander Payne has a thing for the insecure male. His filmography has traced the treacherous topography of adult male experience through almost all phases of life, from middle age (Election, The Descendants, Sideways), to retirement (About Schmidt), to now, senility with Nebraska. But instead of disparaging his characters or depending too much on our sympathy and the humor that often results from old age, Payne manages to paint a very familiar and poignant picture (in perfect black and white) that resonates.
As is often the case with films that portray character journeys, most of the growing and learning in Nebraska occurs away from home, on the open road. And it doesn’t get much more open than the midwest. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) hails from Billings, Montana. Woody receives a bogus sweapstakes letter in the mail, and is convinced that he is about to be a millionaire. His wife, Kate (June Squibb) has all but lost her last marble trying to keep Woody in line, as he continues to sneak out of the house, and walk his way to Lincoln, Nebraska and his fortune. Kate enlists the help of her two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkrik) to reign him in, but instead, David decides to oblige his father’s fantasy and drive him to Lincoln. At least he too would be getting away for awhile.
What makes Nebraska work, aside from the wonderful performances, is the clear understanding Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have about memory, and how we remember each other. Both David and Ross have not so fun memories of their father’s alcoholism, but as children, their understanding of their parents is limited, as is all of ours. As adults, their understanding hasn’t improved much, and therefore, their relationship with him has stagnated. When David travels with Woody away from Billings, and to his father’s childhood home of Hawthorne, Nebraska, he is given different perspectives, good and bad, of his father from both family and friends that he was never exposed to before. But as is the trouble with memory, one absolute truth is hard to come by, especially when you can only remember someone as they were, and not see them as they are. In the end, David, Ross, and Kate make peace with Woody as the man he was then, and the man he is now.
The performance of Bruce Dern as Woody needed to be spot on, and he succeeds. It’s not easy for one character to invoke feelings of compassion and outright disgust in an audience. June Squibb is also delicious as Kate Grant, the uncompromising mother who isn’t afraid to dislike her husband and love him at the same time. Her scenes with the rest of the Grant family are some of the best. Really this film is about Will Forte’s David, and his road to defining a new relationship with a man he (and the audience) doesn’t know very well at the beginning. His performance is subtle, and very relatable to those who have ever cared for older parents. Kate and Woody may get the bigger single laughs when the script calls for it, but Forte’s presence and delivery makes for a consistency and has you smiling in comradery throughout the film.
Alexander Payne has yet to really disappoint me. Nebraska is one of his most thoughtful films, and one of my favorites for the year.
Nebraska opens today at the Ritz Five.