Saturday, November 30, 2013

Movie Review: "Nebraska"

To quote Lady Gaga (and one of my favorite Miss Nebraskas, Kayla Batt), Nebraska, Nebraska, I love you.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Election) has directed one of his finest films to date with this black-and-white tale of an old man on a road trip chasing down what might be his last dream.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a somewhat addled alcoholic without much to live for. He no longer can drive and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), is constantly nagging him and harping on how useless he is. So imagine his pleasure when he receives a letter from a sweepstakes marketing company telling him he won $1 million, and he can claim his prize if he brings the letter to the company's headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska.

No one in his family believes this windfall to be true, but the thought of winning this money becomes Woody's obsession (much as the thought of appearing on television obsessed Ellen Burstyn's character in Requiem for a Dream). Despite his family's lack of support, Woody constantly leaves his home in Billings, Montana, determined to walk all the way to Lincoln if he has to, much to the chagrin of his wife and older son, television news reporter Ross (Bob Odenkirk).

Finally, Woody's determination gets to his younger son, David (a surprisingly low-key Will Forte, of Saturday Night Live fame). To humor his father, escape his own dead-end life for a while, and perhaps get the opportunity to spend a little time with a man who gave him little when he was growing up, David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln. But as you might imagine, the trip doesn't quite go as smoothly as David thought it would, and it includes rescuing his father from a few drunken incidents, one which results in Woody's being hospitalized briefly.

The pair takes a detour to the depressed hamlet of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up, and he and his family lived until they moved to Billings when David and Ross were young. Woody's brothers still live in town, as does his old friend, business partner, and sometime nemesis Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Despite David's advice to the contrary, news of Woody's million-dollar windfall spreads quickly—he becomes somewhat of a celebrity in the small town, and more than one person comes looking for a little bit of his winnings as "repayment" of old debts.

Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as Woody, a cantankerous man who knows his life is near its end and wants one more chance for something special. With his shaggy gray hair completely askew, he appears to be completely unaware of what is going on around him, but he's more tuned in than anyone realizes. Dern is funny, truthful, and moving; it's a performance you think you can figure out but he has some surprises up his sleeve. With only one Oscar nomination to his credit (for Coming Home in 1978), it's ironic that one of Dern's chief competitors for an Oscar this year will be another legendary actor with one Oscar nomination for acting to date, Robert Redford.

June Squibb, as Woody's long-suffering wife (although she clearly bestows as much suffering as she gets), is the sharp-tongued comic foil of this film. She has an opinion about absolutely everyone and everything, and isn't afraid to share them. While she likes to remind everyone how put upon she has been as Woody's wife for so many years, it's clear that behind her bluster she truly loves her husband. Squibb is absolutely spot-on fantastic, and I hope to see her on the list of Best Supporting Actress nominees at this year's Oscars.

Will Forte gives an understated yet powerful performance as a man whose life doesn't appear to be going anywhere, mainly because he isn't interested in taking control of it. But his time with his father awakens some protective instincts in him that one would guess might propel him in the right direction after the film ended. I was really impressed with his dramatic ability, as I've only seen him in SNL skits to this point.

This is a funnier film than I expected, with some bittersweet tones to it. At times I wasn't sure if Payne was paying homage to his Nebraska roots or mocking them in his portrayal of some of Woody's relatives, but that uncertainty didn't take away from the film's appeal. I really enjoyed this movie, and hope that people see it, both for the terrifically resonant performances and Alexander Payne's completely assured direction.

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