Even though this is the first film he’s worked on where he doesn’t get any writing credit, Nebraska has Alexander Payne written all over it. After About Schmidt and The Descendants, we get another dark comedy about a dysfunctional family that could have only come from Payne’s delicate balance between brutal honesty and backhanded respect towards the importance of the family unit.
Putting aside the obvious quirky and whimsical touches usually employed by novice independent filmmakers who worship at the altar of Wes Anderson, Payne goes for the gut with a very simple premise: Sometimes the only common thing we have with even our closest family members is our DNA. It’s easy to discard people you can’t stand out of your life, people you have absolutely nothing in common with, people who might even be your exact opposite in every conceivable way. But what if that person is a close relative with whom you have to keep in close touch with, or even be responsible for, simply because you’re both part of the same family? How do you deal with a relationship like that?
At the beginning of Nebraska, David Grant (Will Forte) more than likely wishes his aging, near-senile alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) was your run-of-the-mill crazy old fool he could ignore so he can go on with his unremarkable life.
You see, Woody has the obsessive idea ingrained in his alcohol addled head that one of those junk mail scams promising a million dollars is as real as a heart attack. He’s obsessed with making the trip from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim his "prize", even if it means he has to make the journey on foot.
No matter how much David, his local news anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and his bitter mother Kate (June Squibb) try to convince Woody that the offer is a scam, they eventually find him on the side of the freeway, valiantly continuing on his quest. Fearing for Woody’s life while admitting the old man needs something to live for before his brain turns into papier mache, David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska so he can see how he didn’t in fact win a million bucks with his own eyes.
This is a great set-up for a father-son road movie, yet screenwriter Bob Nelson spends too big of a chunk of the second act on David and Woody becoming conveniently stuck in Woody’s hometown, where his relatives and old friends try their darndest to get a piece of an action that doesn’t exist.
Some of these sub-plots involving side characters pay off in true Payne-style awkward dark humor fashion. A family argument ending with the lamest fistfight in history and a half-assed heist concocted by Woody’s physically colossal and colossally stupid twin nephews are worth a watch.
Another sub-plot revolving around one of Woody’s rivals from his youth (Stacy Keach) physically threatening David if he doesn’t get his cut of the million feels forced and offers the kind of predictable conclusion that’s beneath Payne’s standards. A sit-com level sequence about David and Ross stealing something trivial from the wrong house goes on for too long.
However, the performances keep the dull pacing afloat and we’re treated to an ending that’s fully earned and actually kind of sweet. It’s a move that would have been uncharacteristic during Payne’s early career, but fits his latest approach to family dynamics that eventually comes to the conclusion that sometimes, family’s all we have and it’s worth fighting for, even if we can’t stand it. The ending doesn’t carry the same emotional impact as The Descendants, but is developed equally as organically and doesn’t come off as a cheap Hollywood ploy to extract quick sympathy.
Bruce Dern, who won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes is bound to earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination. His grizzled, no-nonsensical, sometimes downright nihilistic approach to Woody is a frustrating pleasure to watch. Known mostly for his comedy work, Will Forte brings about an expertly subdued "straight man" performance.
Yet the real star here is June Squibb as the compulsively sour mother who turns crap-talking into an art form. A scene showing her insulting friends she outlasted at their graves is worth the price of admission alone, especially since it ends with the kind of Girls Gone Wild action no one ever wants to see, ever. She deserves at least a Best Supporting Actress nod come Oscar time.
Nebraska represents a lot of firsts for Payne. It’s the first film he directed from someone else’s screenplay; first time he used digital photography, black & white and an anamorphic lens. Because of his inexperience with these elements, the film carries the aura of a deftly handled first feature by an up and coming director than a seasoned professional. Regardless, it will satisfy his fans and those with some serious father-son issues.