This road trip’s payoff doesn’t come from the Publishers Clearing House
In his films, Alexander Payne has shown a strong predilection for men somewhere north of their prime, still adrift and looking for grounding. The roots of which took hold with “About Schmidt” (2002), got whacky and whiney with “Sideways” (2004) and then moved out onto the island of Hawaii with a more dour tone in “The Descendants” (2011). Payne’s latest, “Nebraska” may be the ultimate in mature male malfunction and, in a sweet elegiacal way, ties back to “Schmidt” as its protagonist, Woody Grant, played by a game Bruce Dern now nearing eighty, has a dry, fly-away comb-over reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s hair-challenged Schmidt and ironically, in both films, those men’s wives were played by the same actress, June Squibb, who practically upends and nearly steals “Nebraska” as it sails into the third act.
The setup’s fairly rudimentary with the aging Woody insistent on getting from his home in Billings, Montana to the state of the film’s title because he’s received a note informing him he’s won a million dollars. One honestly can’t claim to be an America if they haven’t gotten one of those Publisher Clearing House sweepstakes hooks in the mail. Common sense says it’s fodder for the oval file, but Woody, frail and vacant, seems a bit around the bend faculty wise. Whether it’s depression, too much sauce over the years or (and the film never floats it as a possibility, though it would have gone the furthest in selling the rhyme behind Woody’s inept quest) dementia, we never really know, we just know that Woody’s unsettled and unwavering in his Husker state mission. And, despite some ardent familial persuasion, he won’t call it or mail it in, it’s got to be in person and nothing will change his mind. He also can’t drive, which creates a short term dilemma, until his forty-year-old son, David (former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte) stuck in a dead end job at a Best Buy knock-off and recently dumped by his Reuben-esque girlfriend, agrees to take on the road trip duties, which he passively sees as an opportunity to take stock and a chance to give his dad a sense of closure.
It’s also during the predictable brouhaha preceding their departure, that we learn what we need to about Woody as the family prattles on about his shortcomings with him within earshot as if he weren’t there–the gist of which being, that Woody was never a present or good family man and drank too much (and still does).
The road provides a bit of respite, even calm, with father and son bonding moments within reach, until a bar brawl derails them and, against Woody’s wishes, they make a side excursion to Woody’s old hometown (the fictitious township of Hawthorne, Nebraska), where the streets have a depressed1950s sheen and Woody’s tangential kin are little more than couch potato rubes. Adding to the none-too-friendly homecoming, Stacy Keach slithers in as Woody’s sleazy old auto shop partner and news of Woody’s winning becomes front page fodder. The steady simmer brings unhappy revelations into focus, and just as push comes to shove, the rest of Woody’s Montana clan rolls in and, in an ironic twist, the now notorious prize letter garners epic interest.
The film, written by Bob Nelson, obviously holds personal, if not autobiographical, appeal for Payne, who grew up in Omaha (allegedly Payne had been trying to get “Nebraska” done for much of the past decade). His choice to shoot the un-nostalgic going home in muted black and white is a bold one that starkly captures the grim graininess of the struggling mid-west while reflecting Woody’s wayward cognizance and dimming light.
At the fore, Dern’s gaunt frame holds up the film even though the role is fairly two-note. More is asked of Forte in the thankless bit of being the rational son caught up in a nonsensical senior moment, while his former SNL compatriot, Bob Odenkirk, fills out the juicier part of the cantankerous older brother and aspiring news anchor. He’s from the Ron Burgundy school of tele-journalism, sans the humor.
What Dern, Forte and Payne have notched is a quiet accomplishment. The lot have made an American asshole sympathetic. Part of that’s done by surrounding Woody with even deeper steeped miscreants (Hawthorne teems with them), but the real heart to “Nebraska” is David’s beholding sense of family obligation and the universal conundrums that confront individuals struggling with aging parents. He’s the real hero of the film, the one who, in his wishy-washy way, puts himself out there for others. Whether it’s Billings, Hawthorne or Boston, it’s always nice to know someone’s got your back
Published in Cambridge Day and Charleston City Paper