“You need to water these plants, David. They’re…plants.”
Caught somewhere between formula and freshness, Nebraska feels like a second-hand movie touched-up by a steady hand. Directing from a script by Bob Nelson, Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) leaves his melancholic print over a slight, small-scaled story of a father and son. Like all of Payne’s films, the sadness is laced with humour, the cruelty with kindness, and the family unit with wider social implications. One just wishes Payne could have picked a script more worthy of his double vision.
The father-son bond between David and Woody Grant (Will Forte and Bruce Dern, respectively) hums in front of a rural backdrop of a Recession-hit rural Midwest. David, just dumped by his overweight girlfriend – I mention this as a stroke of courage on Payne’s part not to take the Hollywood approach and cast a gorgeous woman as a loser’s love interest – and bored by his job as a home electronics salesman, decides to humour his father on a road-trip from their home in Montana to collect the fabled million dollars in company headquarters in Nebraska. On the way, they stop by Woody’s childhood town for an awkward family reunion.
All too often Forte plays a broken record of perma-embarrassed groans; some of his scenes with Dern feel like better rewrites of The Guilt Trip. Senile and fond of drink, retired Woody becomes convinced he’s the winner of a Mega Sweepstakes jackpot. The one-time MacGruber comedian broadens his dramatic range but remains a cipher with little to do except act agape alongside us at his family’s redneck behavior. Dern, despite too many “What’s that you said?” Dad moments, gives Woody a brittle sincerity and slowly dawning despair. Like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (another Payne peepshow into disappointed and disappointing middle Americans), Dern plays a deer caught in the headlights of his own insignificance. Binding him to his brothers and workmates isn’t so much a sense of community, but the fact that they all knew each since the Depression, and knew who was sleeping around with whom before everyone got hitched.
Payne has always excelled at keeping one eye sympathetic and one eye skeptical towards ignorant men and women of the working class. In Nebraska he borders dangerously close to mockery, while still maintaining his razor-sharp social observations.
When Woody is frank, his honesty cuts like a knife: answering David on why he and his brother were born so soon after they got married, Woody answers “’Cause I like to screw, and your mother’s Catholic, so figure it out.” Other lines sound all-too hackneyed: “You’d drink if you were married to your mother.” The mother, played by June Squibb, has a confrontational moment with Woody’s money-hungry relatives – but the intended shock of the moment feels thirty-to-forty years out of date, before dropping the f-word was not that big a deal. Payne has always excelled at keeping one eye sympathetic and one eye skeptical towards ignorant men and women of the working class. In Nebraska he borders dangerously close to mockery, while still maintaining his razor-sharp social observations. At least it’s a step down the condescension ladder from About Schmidt.
You might think Payne would show more heart in a film titled after his home state, or that Nelson would have more to celebrate about his Midwestern surroundings because, according to Payne, “he experienced that life.” The rolling hayfields are sapped of color by Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white cinematography. Foreclosure signs dot Woody’s small town, whose denizens’ clothing and karaoke song choices are frozen in the 80s. It’s not romantic, in spite of Richard Ford’s distinctive piano and French horn themes. Ultimately Payne delivers an interesting but uneven eagle-eyed gaze on a Greatest Generation unmoored in the post-Reagan Midwest.
[notification type=”star”]70/100 ~ GOOD. Ultimately Payne delivers an interesting but uneven eagle-eyed gaze on a Greatest Generation unmoored in the post-Reagan Midwest.[/notification]