Directed by Alexander Payne
If one actor has ever independently saved one movie from being a complete atrocity, it was Bruce Dern saving “Nebraska.” Without the virtuosic veteran’s delightfully crotchety performance as Woody Grant, a forgetful and hopeless end-of-lifer trying to leave a legacy for his estranged children, director Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” would appear to be little more than a low-budget home video. It would be simply mundane without the star. With him, it’s only slightly more bearable.
In the rustic American heartland of Billings, Montana, Woody Grant (Dern) receives a letter from a sweepstakes company telling him that he could already be the winner of $1 million. So, he sets out on foot to travel the hundreds of miles to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the letter originated. His gossipy wife, Kate (June Squibb, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress), tries to convince him that the letter is just a cheap marketing ploy, but he keeps sneaking out, determined to make the trip one way or another. His son David (“SNL” vet Will Forte) is called in to help convince his confused father that he’s just being silly, but the stubborn old coot won’t give up…so David offers to drive him to Nebraska. Along the way, they’ll stop by Woody’s old hometown, see a few old friends and enemies, and rediscover a few things about themselves.
Aside from Dern, no doubt an acting genius and a serious contender for the acting Oscar (this is one of the strongest races in years), the rest of the ensemble seem like puppets – stiff and wooden. Forte’s attempt at drama comes off as just another sarcastic “SNL” farce. I can’t take him seriously. Even Squibb, as delightfully chatty as she might be, seems like she’s reading straight off the cue cards. And the extended family Woody and David stop to see are amateurish. Boring, normal, even downright shameful. It all looks and feels low-budget. Except for Dern. He deserves a cast of equals, because he’s right in his element. If you’ve ever seen a picture of him, you’d know this is the role for him. I’ve never seen him smile – even when his name was called off as a nominee for the Golden Globe for Best Actor, he kept a straight face. It’s like he’s been playing this role his whole life.
“Nebraska” continues a confusing trend of filming new movies in black & white. While I see the point – Payne conveys the bleakness of Woody’s life, as well as the monotony of small-town Nebraska – I don’t think the lack of color does anything but make the film more boring than it already would have been. The script, along with Dern’s brilliant acting, expresses the same emotions without losing the vivid colors of the American Midwest. It only subtracts from the cinematic experience.
Speaking of the script (which is also Oscar-nominated, for some reason) – it tackles important themes of end-of-life hopelessness and legacy-leaving, but without waxing too poetic on either subject. Bob Nelson’s first feature film left me waiting for it to get deeper or more philosophical, but it never does. The dramedy, not unlike a Coen Brothers script, tries to draw laughs from the small-town families the story focuses on. But with this script, it’s like squeezing water from a rock.
Unfortunately, this black & white slice of rustic Americana is far from the top of my Best Picture race. Of the 8 I’ve seen, only “Her” disappointed me more. But even if most of this dud will quickly fade from memory, Bruce Dern gives a performance we will not soon forget.