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.
Nebraska is a film about human stagnation. People growing old in the same place, visiting the same bars, living in a never changing world. It is almost depressing watching as characters who haven’t seen each other in years, struggle to put together more than a couple of sentences to discuss what they have been doing since they last met. Luckily, thanks in part to in its stellar cast, Nebraska injects enough humour and charm into proceedings so as to stop it being the dire experience it might have been.
Alexander Payne has always been astute at striking this perfect balance between melancholy and humour. His previous efforts The Descendants and About Schmidt are perhaps the best examples of this. However, never before has he made a film that feels this oppressive. Every character seems trapped by their own lack of ambition, our protagonists are either stuck in dead-end jobs or simply languishing in nothingness. Nebraska is full of scenes where characters simply stare at a TV, seemingly content to live out their lives on the sofa. By rights this should be a dispiriting film to watch. It is a testament to Payne’s ability then that he turns these scenes into perfect satire. The smallest details are brilliantly observed and highlighted, converting the saddest of subjects into laughs.
The performances are at the heart of the film’s success. A lot has been made of Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, and rightly so. As is often said, Woody is a man of few words, and very distant, yet Dern manages to bring both humour and pathos to the character, often simultaneously. Dern’s performance is enhance by playing off of Will Forte, who here plays the straight man. This is no doubt a challenge for a man so used to playing for laughs. He puts in an impressive performance, and with the help of Bob Odenkirk (who plays his brother), he manages to ground the film in the midst of the craziness around him. Yet, dominating the film like her character dominates the family is June Squib, who plays Kate, Woody’s wife. Her foul mouth and raucous character contrasts well with Dern’s quiet and withdrawn Woody. Her performance is at the centre of all of the best humour in the film, and as such her scenes are often the film’s best.
Nebraska has some hilarious story lines which are slowly built up and then pay off perfectly. The best example of this involves a compressor that was stolen from Woody many years ago, a detail that at first seems almost insignificant. However, it gradually weaves its way into the story, culminating in a riotous scene involving the nuclear family. The humour is so strong that at times it tends to overwhelm the more dramatic elements, which perhaps aren’t so strong. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some emotional punch in the film. The film’s final scene in particular, perfectly concludes the films dramatic narrative. It is just that the drama and comedy isn’t so finely balanced as it was in The Descendants.
Unfortunately, there are times when the films starts to drag. Some scenes go on too long, while others feel completely unnecessary. At some point the film starts to feel like it has lost its direction. But maybe that’s the intended effect. These characters we are watching are on a simple mission, get from point A to point B. Yet, as simple as the task seems, it takes them a hell of a long time to do it. These are not men of action we are watching, as is evidenced by their lives. It would be a mistake if these characters were as pro-active and gung-ho as your average protagonist. Still, as honest as this portrayal may be, their lack of action sometimes doesn’t make for great spectacle.
In the end though, this is just nitpicking. Nebraska is every bit The Descendants equal. What it may lacking drama it certainly makes up in laughs, which it keeps consistently coming. Moreover, the performances here are uniformly excellent, superior to that witnessed in Payne’s previous work. It is just a shame it wasn’t more judiciously edited. Payne is yet to make a bad or even below average movie, and he has many years of filmmaking ahead of him. As good as Nebraska is, Payne’s talent promises even better things in the future.