‘Nebraska’ is dumb luck, dark laughs

by Varun Bhuchar | 1/26/14 6:48pm

America is big. Like, really big. You might think it’s a long way to the pharmacy, but that trip is peanuts compared to traveling across America. That’s why you get so many road trip movies; they’re all about the journey, and with a country as large and varied as the United States, you get lots of journeys.

The trip from Montana to Lincoln, Neb., depicted in “Nebraska” (2013) is just one of those journeys. Filmed in stark black and white, the film evokes distant echoes of a fond memory. Nebraska is flat and boring, but in monochrome, it becomes stark and breathtaking. Director Alexander Payne, a Nebraskan himself, crafts the movie as an ode to the state and the people who live there.

Ordinary may be the most pleasant way to describe Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an alcoholic, stubborn mule of a man and the film’s protagonist. The film opens as he is living out his last days with his headstrong wife, Kate (June Squibb), a woman whose company he would trade for the sweet release of death.

All this changes when Woody “wins” a $1 million sweepstakes prize that his son, David (Will Forte), realizes is a scam. Woody, who cannot drive, resolves to walk from his home in Montana to the sweepstakes office in Nebraska to claim his prize. David realizes that his father will likely die on the journey and decides to take him there. On the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown — the kind of place with one of everything and no neighboring towns for miles. Here, Woody’s past sins, fears and desires are aired before his family in a painful catharsis that ultimately helps him grow and move on from past traumas.

Woody primarily wants the sweepstakes prize to buy a new truck, a goal Kate admonishes as foolish. She tells Woody he should have worked harder when he was younger, a stinging indictment of get-rich-quick shortcuts to the American Dream. Yet Woody’s friends and other family members ignore Kate’s common sense for the sake of plot conflict, and the audience is much better off for it.

Don’t be put off by this downer of a summary. “Nebraska” is a rare film that manages to be intellectually stimulating and absolutely hysterical. With a frank focus on failure, the film exposes its characters’ hypocrisy, and in doing so, becomes a fine dark comedy.

After melodrama undercut Payne’s previous film, “The Descendants” (2011), “Nebraska” returns to deeply personal relationships, more similar to Payne’s “About Schmidt” (2002) and “Sideways” (2004). “Nebraska,” however, seems the closest to Payne’s heart. He does an amazing job introducing the audience to the characters in Woody’s hometown. When Woody meets his brothers, their mannerisms and actions are something out of “King of the Hill.” Their facial tics and speech patterns reflect how comfortable the men are in their environment.

Dern, in a late career renaissance, is funny and heartbreaking playing the role of an alcoholic in denial. Forte, distancing himself from his “Saturday Night Live” days, brings forth a pathos not immediately evident in “MacGruber” (2010), his last prominent role.

But it is Squibb who steals the show. Whether revealing past sexual adventures to her son or defending her husband from insults he may or may not deserve, Squibb makes “Nebraska” her own. Combined with her upcoming role as Hannah’s grandmother on HBO television series “Girls,” Squibb may be the new Betty White.

Payne, who spends most of his time between films in Nebraska, is something of an outlier among contemporary filmmakers. He has crafted a niche out of on the road movies like “Nebraska,” and while other filmmakers may have been dismissed as one-trick ponies, Payne does them so well that I would certainly give him a pass.

I suppose, however, that I love “Nebraska” so much because it defies the purpose of the road movie. Because of the characters’ growth, everything, no matter how seemingly meaningless or insignificant, is essential to the end.

 

Rating: 9.8/10

“Nebraska” is playing at the Nugget.