FILM REVIEW: Nebraska

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)

As I’ve mentioned before, in the last few years I have made it my mission to see all films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the awards ceremony. There’s usually at least one that doesn’t overly appeal to me, and usually I find my hesitations justified. This year, Nebraska was the film I went into hesitantly. Firstly, it’s in black and white and the trailer gave the impression it was all very bleak and dreary.  Secondly, it is directed by Alexander Payne, who I find to be hit and miss. I enjoyed Sideways (2004) and Election (1999), but found About Schmidt (2002) mind-numbingly boring. The Descendants (2011) was decent but I thought it was highly overrated given all the accolades and awards it received. But I feel like maybe I should give those latter two films another chance now. Maybe it was just that my expectations were somewhat low, but I was really pleasantly surprised by Nebraska.

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a retired mechanic whose mind is starting to fail him. Woody receives one of those scam letters in the mail (similar to the Reader’s Digest ones we get here in Australia), alerting him that he is the winner of one million dollars in the sweepstakes, and he sets off to claim his prize. He is unwilling to listen to his nagging wife and sensible sons’ claims that it is clearly a hoax. Hence, his son David (Will Forte) takes it upon himself to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his fortune apparently awaits. Along the way they drop in on Woody’s home town where extended family and old friends come out in full force to greet him.

Will Forte and Bruce Dern
Will Forte and Bruce Dern

I am not overly familiar with Bruce Dern’s work (despite him being in 220 films) so I feel somewhat limited in my judgment of his performance, but it seemed pretty good to me. Woody is a character that most of us have probably come across. In short, an old senile drunk. But one who has spent much of his life helping others (mostly by way of fixing cars) without asking for anything in return. Though dementia or Alzheimer’s is never explicitly mentioned, it is made clear that with old age, Woody’s mind (and body) is gradually deteriorating. The film maintains a perfect balance of utilising the comedic aspects that this enables, without exploiting Woody. Although some of his actions are foolish, you can’t help but respect him and his own sense of humour. He doesn’t say much, but he still manages to be hilarious.

Bruce Dern
Bruce Dern

The real comedic star, however, was June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife, Kate. She made me laugh out loud time and time again. A real cracker. And again, a character that we have probably met before. In short, an old bitch. But one who despite her incessant nagging, does love her husband deep down. Her dialogue was golden and she delivered it brilliantly. It’s almost worth seeing just for her.

Who would've thought that such a cute little old lady could be so crass?
Who would’ve thought that such a cute little old lady could be so crass?

Will Forte, of Saturday Night Live fame, was well cast in the mostly straight role of David, and the father-son relationship was really touching. Stacy Keach (apparently men can be called Stacy? I never knew) was hella good in the somewhat villainous role of Woody’s old colleague, Ed. One of his facial reactions floored me. Brilliant. It was difficult to tell if the people playing the townspeople and relatives were actors or not. Apparently they were a mix. It worked. I did recognise one of the wanker cousins but couldn’t quite put my finger on it… turns out it was Buzz from Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)! A.k.a. Devin Ratray. I’m guessing he gets typecast as a dick quite a lot. The cousins were such pricks and almost in a one-dimensional way, but then, I’m fairly sure those small-town, lazy, small-minded losers who still live with their parents in their 30s do exist. There were still plenty of lovable small town characters for good measure though. It showcased the good and the bad, sometimes within the same character.

Family reunion
Family reunion

Don’t let the black and white put you off. It actually makes for some amazing (Oscar-nominated) cinematography. It really works. I’ve heard some online posters report that they simply will not watch this film for this reason. Which is pretty shallow really. Remember The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)? And that was SILENT. So get over it. So there isn’t much colour – that’s not what you go to the movies to see is it? I’ll admit it did turn me off a bit when I saw the trailer, but it honestly does not detract from the film’s quality. It enhances it. I should also mention that the score set up the mood of the film really well (see trailer above).

This scene cracked me up more than any other
This scene cracked me up more than any other

There’s a chance I was too easily satisfied by Nebraska simply because my expectations were low. However, I mean low in the sense that it didn’t seem like it would be my thing. It did have Oscar nominations and universally good reviews in its favour so I knew it was ‘meant to be good’. On the whole I really enjoyed it – and I loved the ending but that’s all I’ll say on that matter. Give the small-town movie a chance and go on Woody’s journey with him.

4 stars

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