Movie Review: Nebraska is full of heart; sorry, no corn here
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
Alexander Payne journeys into the world of light & dark for what is the tale of a rural American family that focuses on father-son dynamics and the repercussions of aging. Alongside Sideways and The Descendants, Nebraska marks only the 3rd feature film directed by Payne in a decade. Payne is a man in touch with the world around him as well as humanity in general, capturing so many true feelings of the individuals and groups living in America in the 21st century. The film focuses on Woody Grant, a retired and exhausted old man who grew up in Hawthorne, Nebraska but wishes to travel to Lincoln to pick up his million dollar prize winnings in person after receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail. His son indulges his wishes and decides to let him live out his dreams of becoming a millionaire, and what we get is a heartbreaking and touching film that explores family relationships as well as the changing world around us. Woody’s journey to Lincoln is interrupted by a medical emergency which detours him into his hometown of Hawthorne, leading to many classic scenes of a rural American family in 2013. The sometimes comedic, sometimes traumatic scenes in which Payne presents to us are filled with the harshness of reality and come across quite well without the use of any melodrama or contrived emotion. The only trouble I had with the film was that June Squibb’s character felt a bit cartoonish because of the length of screen-time her repetitive lines were given. While hilarious, she could have been edited a little for a more sharp delivery of the character overall. The technique in which Payne directs and oversees the film is consistent and incredibly effective for the most part, with special attention going to the look and feel of Hawthorne and the cast. Payne pulls out the best from the cast in Nebraska, which alongside the composition and framing of this beautiful narrative makes for one of the best films of 2013.
On its own, the screenplay here is quite strong, delivering an exploration of the aforementioned plot elements, but also including comedy and entertainment which add up to a very accessible storyline. The Woody Grant character is especially well-written, however I also thought that his son David was exceptionally developed. Ed Pegram, the arch nemesis of the Grant family was also well-written and slaps a character on screen in which we all can relate to someone in our real lives. The incredible depiction of what it means to be a good father and a good son stick out from everything else here, but the filling out of the script with comedy and additional characters is what makes this screenplay easy to work with.
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb all give well-balanced performances as the Grant family, although I do think a lot of the credit must go to Payne and Nelson for their script and direction. The trio holds the film together, and without their veteran expertise and emphasis on perfection, Nebraska wouldn’t have been what it was. Other impressive performances were given by Bob Odenkirk, another of Woody’s sons, and Devin Ratray (whom viewers might recognize as Kevin McAllister’s big brother Buzz from John Hughes’ holiday classic Home Alone) as one of Woody’s extended family members.
Mark Orton’s score for Nebraska provides a lightness to the film, while reflecting back on a life lived out west, and reviving the horns of old Westerns at times. The atmospheric tone of the composition’s allows room for Payne to work with, since the sounds we hear keeps our minds right at home with the film’s slow, rural setting. Personally, this was one of my favorites of the year.
While Alexander Payne doesn’t often come to mind when I think of great American directors, his work on a movie titled with the state he was born into reminds us all of his ability to capture the feeling and look of America as poetically and accurately as anyone working today. Ultimately, Nebraska transcends Payne’s previous work when it indulges into the relationship between Woody and David, but it never falters and is quite the quirky, affectionate adventure.