Considering it’s a movie nominated for six of the most important Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress), Nebraska is a strange little film. Strange because of how mundane it is. Not “boring” or “unimpressive,” but mundane in the sense that it deals entirely with commonplace, human events as opposed to the sensationalist fodder that constitutes most current movie plots. There’s certainly no gargoyle-hunting Frankenstein monster, but there are also no plot twists, sex scenes, or car chases, and there’s no violence expect for exactly one punch to the face of a 70 year-old man. (Don’t worry, he deserved it.)
Instead, you get a highly competent film that celebrates the beauty of the every day. Shot in black and white using a complicated technical process that allows digital video to mimic film grain, the movie is filled with charming performances, an excellent lo-fi folksy rock score, and gorgeous cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. The script and plot weave a working-class tale that never tries to elevate it’s subject matter to Hollywood norms. Instead, the film takes the time to develop a convincing, three-dimensional depiction of it’s reticent main character, Woody, played in an Oscar-nominated performance by veteran actor Bruce Dern.
The film begins with Woody wandering a Billings, South Dakota freeway on-ramp before being accosted by a concerned police officer. Apparently, Woody has received a “You’ve Been Selected for Our Million-Dollar Prize” letter and, not realizing it’s an obvious scam, sets out to claim his prize by walking to Lincoln, Nebraska. His concerned family members, especially his son David – played by comedian/actor Will Forte – all try to talk him out of his hare-brained idea. Eventually, though, David feels bad about telling his father to give up on his dream, and he agrees to drive him to Nebraska to claim the prize.
The film pulls a bait-and-switch with the plot, though. Once in Nebraska, David convinces his father to stay at their relatives’ house for an impromptu family reunion in their old hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. While there, the townspeople and family members get wind that Woody has supposedly won a million dollars, and they start celebrating him as a town hero, much to David’s embarrassment. The rest of the film shows the interplay between family and friends in small-town midwestern life, and how a little dream like Woody’s prize can color working-class life.
The plot maintains the straight and narrow for the entire film. I kept expecting some dramatic turn, like Woody suddenly dying or someone trying to kill him for the cash, but this never happened. Instead, the movie exercises restraint and never goes off into any sort of deep end. The dedication to realism – keeping the situations and performances grounded – is probably the most remarkable thing about the movie. Long stretches of completely uninteresting dialogue are made humorous or enjoyable because of the way director Alexander Payne chooses to portray his subjects. There’s never a moment of over-trumped lunacy to appeal to the mouth-breathing audience members, like many “Indie comedies” have done recently, such as Little Miss Sunshine.
Speaking of Payne, I wasn’t even aware this was one of his films until after I saw it, even though plot-wise I was reminded of About Schmidt. Unlike About Schmidt, though, or Payne’s other successful movie Sideways, there’s never a moment where you are nauseated by the characters’ behavior. The characters are instead staples of a midwestern family; aging men that talk about cars they used to own and two fat cousins (they stole the show) who have no higher aspirations than to brag about their travel times on highways. These folksy meatloaf-and-potatoes characters add no small amount of charm to the film, and as you hear them talk about their youth and how they all know Woody, you start to feel like you know more about Woody than most of your own relatives.
The performances are what make this film work. Bruce Dern has completely assimilated with his character, a rare moment when it becomes impossible to tell if someone is even acting or just showed up on the set as-is. His portrayal holds the film together like a lynchpin. He doesn’t have a hammy soliloquy or death scene (even though he looks like he’s about to keel over any minute,) but instead just mutters plain truths. For example, when David asks his dad why he had kids without planning ahead, Woody’s response is “Well, your mother’s a Catholic, and I like to screw. You do the math.”
It’s weird seeing Will Forte in a serious role, though. I kept expecting him to bust out into his semi-professional actor bit from Flight of the Conchords. Apparently this was a deliberate choice, according to director Alexander Payne, who said that when Forte wasn’t doing comedy he had a sad, everyman look about him. As the film progresses, you see Forte’s character becoming more involved and sympathetic towards his father. Little touches like the way David helps his dad walk up stairs contribute to the sustained realism.
The one performance I’d question – only because I don’t deem it Oscar-worthy – is June Squibb’s. She plays Woody’s wife and David’s mother. Her delivery is completely wooden and as unconvincing as a testimonial on a late-night infomercial. I’m really not sure what the Academy was thinking when they nominated her other than “Lol! Old lady said the ‘F’ word and flashed a gravestone!” Her dialogue is extremely amusing, but her character did nothing for me other than to flesh out some of Woody’s backstory.
All in all I’d say I’m glad I saw the film, but doubt I’d ever want to see it again. It’s interesting to meet Woody, who at first seems like a throwaway character, and then hear so much about his past life. The man helped his father build the house they lived in. You also hear about his sex life when he was a teenager, which is jarring at first, but reminds you that your parents were once your age and had the same desires you do now. It’s the kind of film that puts perspective on a technology-obsessed culture who thinks it’s advanced past old codgers just because of Twitter and smart phones. The film reminds us instead that we all have simple, human desires, and that community used to mean everyone sharing in on your hopes and dreams.
It’s still a difficult film to recommend to most people. It has a brutally slow pace, not a whole lot of gags or memorable scenes, extremely grounded characters, and an ending that doesn’t buck any expectations. What the film still has to offer is a sense of wonder at the everyday; it will make you appreciate small talk with people that don’t have a whole lot to say. I’d compare it to being stuck at an old relative’s house for a weekend instead of a night – refreshingly more fun than expected, but still not something you’d go out of your way to do again.
4 out of 5 stars