I liked Nebrasaka a lot more than The Descendants, but to be fair I found The Descendants the most overrated of that year’s Oscar contenders. I saw it at my first Toronto International Film Festival and was surprised to see such buzz build. Now I saw Alexander Payne’s next film at my first Cannes Film Festival and I guess I’m not surprised to find people underwhelmed because I’m the guy who sees the good in the underdogs and sees through the hype of the big ones.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wants to go to Nebraska to collect his million dollar winnings from a generic Publisher’s Clearing House type mailing. His son David (Will Forte) decides to take him so they can have some time together. That’s a poignant sort of road trip. David knows he’s delivering his father to disappointment, but it’s a reality check Woody may need. Along the way, David’s mother Kate (June Squibb) and brother Russ (Bob Odenkirk) join them as they settle old scores with other friends and relatives.
I really like how the encounters with Woody’s past reveal how he got this way. He wasn’t just a drunk who became a burden on his family. He made sacrifices and compromises that led him to take solace in booze and put up emotional walls. This is a great way to reveal a character. It seems pretty basic as what you should do to develop a story, but I don’t take it for granted in filmmaking. Maybe it helps that the Grant relatives are far more despicable than Woody, but even then characters who seem like freeloaders or bullies reveal they had some positive involvement in Woody’s past, so they should be given a little respect too.
Nebraska has a mellow tone with some mild laughs. Nothing’s as funny as Paul Giamatti drinking the spit bucket, but none of it is supposed to be as broad either. David and Russ get into some shenanigans, some hijinks leading to awkward misunderstandings. The set pieces about the 40-year-old compressor and a staged mugging will be the comic highlights. They’re goofy but it’s all grounded, reality based humor, and not obnoxiously cute. It’s the right balance.
Essentially this movie is about giving an old man his dignity, which is found through letting him play out an embarrassing misunderstanding. Letting someone figure that out for themselves is more respectful than “saving” them from it by stepping in. I don’t even feel I need to mention the black and white photography because it’s just natural, and doesn’t make the movie feel any less contemporary. Forte is sympathetic as a relatable small town son and both Dern and Squibb get some powerhouse scenes.