Nebraska is the latest film to be directed by Alexander Payne, the man responsible for bringing us such bittersweet gems as Sideways and About Schmidt – which forever burned into the brain the image of what it would be like to see an old Jack Nicholson sitting his scrawny butt down on the toilet to pee. Nebraska is another film that focuses on old age and human frailty, but without descending into maudlin navel-gazing.
Filmed in black-and-white (Oh man, I hear you wail, not an arty film! Well, yes, kind of, but still, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when the film is this good), Nebraska is the story of Woody Grant, an old, semi-senile alcoholic father who is insistent on travelling from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim a million-dollar prize that doesn’t exist. So insistent is Woody – played brilliantly and movingly by Bruce Dern (welcome back, Bruce, by the way! It’s been ages, man!) – that his estranged son David (Will Forte) ends up deciding to drive him there, if only to shut his father up.
The film is actually very optimistic, although it doesn’t sound it. At first glimpse you’d be forgiven for assuming the movie would be about loss and confusion and sadness but although those are important aspects of the film, it is also peppered with moments of such beautiful simplicity and understanding that by the end of Nebraska you feel that the positives far outweighs the negatives. Even those moments in the film when human greed rears its ugly head – as the vultures, familial and otherwise, circle Grant’s apparent, perceived newfound wealth – the potential for human comedy is not diminished.
In fact, humor is to be found everywhere in Nebraska; in the slow, painfully boring lives of the crushed soles of small-town America; in the inability of men to communicate; in stories of past love; and in the face of the inexorable passing of time.
Everyone involved gives an inspiring performance. Will Forte’s portrayal of the soft-spoken, sensitive son who given the choice between resentment and forgiveness chooses the latter is an exercise in noble humanity, just as Stacy Keach’s performance (Hey, Stacy Keach! How you doing, buddy?) as Grant’s old shyster friend, Ed Pegram, is an exercise in self-serving amorality. June Squibb, as Kate Grant, Woody’s long-suffering wife, deserves special mention for an incredible job making her character such a likeable, heroic creation. Look out for a great scene in a cemetery when she lets an old beau lying under the ground know what he missed all those years. Wonderful.
I loved this movie. Okay, it doesn’t have a carefully selected ensemble carrying out a daring heist or require any of the leads to brutalize themselves to fit a particular role; it’s not a fast-paced, action-packed romp or a CGI blockbuster… but it IS a thing of utter beauty; it IS utterly human… and it IS totally worth the ticket. Nebraska proves, simply, that you don’t have to be colorful to be colorful.