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Nebraska Movie Review

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Nebraska (2013) movie poster Nebraska

Theatrical Release: November 15, 2013 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Alexander Payne / Writer: Bob Nelson

Cast: Bruce Dern (Woody Grant), Will Forte (David Grant), June Squibb (Kate Grant), Bob Odenkirk (Ross Grant), Stacy Keach (Ed Pegram), Mary Louise Wilson (Aunt Martha), Rance Howard (Uncle Ray), Tim Driscoll (Bart), Devin Ratray (Cole), Angela McEwan (Peg Nagy), Gelndora Stitt (Aunt Betty), Elizabeth Moore (Aunt Flo), Kevin Kunkel (Cousin Randy), Dennis McCoig (Uncle Verne), Ronald Vosta (Uncle Albert), Missy Doty (Nöel)

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In dramedies like Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, Alexander Payne has told stories about situations of great importance to his characters with little impact beyond them. Adapted from novels often by Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, these films have been widely celebrated for their wit, humanity, and warmth.

Payne's latest film, Nebraska, does not spring from literature or credit him with the screenplay. It's an original story written by middle-aged newcomer Bob Nelson. But it is very much in line with Payne's brand of funny, smart, emotional storytelling and adds to the director's winning streak. It's no coincidence that it is in theaters now, during the season of quality films sure to feature in year-end lists and award shows.

A father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) take a road trip together in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska."

The black and white, 2.35:1 Nebraska opens with the image of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging, unshaven man with wild hair, walking along the side of a Montana highway. A police car stops nearby, with the officer popping out to check on his intentions. Down at the station, reticent, old Woody explains to his middle-aged son David (Will Forte)
that he has received a letter entitling him to $1 million and that he's planning to redeem it down in Lincoln, Nebraska, by foot if necessary. David points out that the letter is an obvious scam, an attention-grabbing way to encourage magazine subscriptions. Woody doesn't care; his mind is set on collecting his prize.

Against the objections of David's mother, Woody's outspoken wife Kate (June Squibb), David takes time off from his job as a home theater salesman to drive Woody all the way down to Lincoln. Though Lincoln and a million dollars are ostensibly the destination and purpose of this trip, David's really making it as a way to spend time with his father and to indulge him in this far-fetched fantasy.

After a brief look at Mount Rushmore from the side of the highway and a stay in Black Hills, South Dakota, father and son make it to Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's childhood hometown. He's surprised and a little disappointed to discover that his old auto repair shop and favorite watering hole are now run by people who don't know him or the former owners. The two men visit the home of Woody's brother (Rance Howard), a place that remains quiet even though the families haven't seen each other in at least twenty years.

Relatives sit in silence, straining to make small talk in "Nebraska."

Down in the town, Woody can't help but reveal his windfall to his old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a man he still bitterly believes owes him hundreds of dollars and an air compressor. Word of Woody's good fortune spreads quickly around the small town, where ears perk up during this time of recession. Long-lost and ne'er–do–well relatives stake their claims through David to some of the earnings. Even Ed looks to settle a score.

Meanwhile, Kate and David's brother (Bob Odenkirk) show up and David becomes more aware of his father's upbringing in this sleepy Great Plains community.

The road trip has twice fueled Payne's creative juices. This newest journey conceived by Nelson does so again without feeling like déjà vu. There's some common ground, more in the widower in the Winnebago than in the friends taking one last wine country ramble together. But this is the story of a father and son. It's one of the most potent to explore that relationship since Big Fish ten years ago.

The black and white cinematography adds instant artistry and beauty to this story. Somehow, this trip of revisiting the past seems to demand gray hues. Though humor runs throughout, there is an air of sadness too. Woody isn't long for this world. He and Kate aren't really getting along. A few glimpses of David's personal and professional lives suggest both are kind of pitiful. Hawthorne isn't any better. It's a place where Sunday afternoons find men watching football motionless, emotionless, and silently, save for trying to remember the cars one another used to drive.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) looks out the window while his son (Will Forte) drives in "Nebraska."

Many comedies set in flyover country send up life in these sparsely-populated parts. Nelson and Payne are obviously having fun with the location (Keach's character sings Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" at a diner's karaoke stage), but do so with respect and honesty. Each knows these regions; Payne is a native of Omaha, while Nelson's birthplace of Yankton, South Dakota is one of the only things his IMDb page reveals.

The two capture the personality and poetry of the Midwest, making it a salient backdrop to this slow, offbeat tale of generational bonding. The film shuns sentimentality throughout, but Payne remains a master at earning viewers' tears without contrivance, cheats, or twists. The beautiful, understated conclusion is exactly what the film has been leading to and its caps this journey in a heartwarming and satisfying fashion.

Dern is an actor who has been around for a really long time, but is mostly resigned to supporting roles in minor movies. This is a part that many an elderly actor would relish, but the 77-year-old makes it his own while embodying the character instead of playing it. "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Forte isn't someone you immediately think of to play the straight man in an indie dramedy, but his committed and graceful performance eliminates any of his baggage your mind has been carrying from his ten years in mostly lowbrow television comedy. Forte's value to the film is considerable, but his turn isn't flashy enough to feature in acting award races. The film is almost certain to be recognized in a number of those both for Dern's soulful turn and in the firecracker support of June Squibb, whose filmography has been growing but not in noticeable ways since playing Jack Nicholson's wife in Schmidt.

Following The Artist, perhaps black and white is not the feared plague it once was. Some will see the decision to shoot Nebraska that way pretentious or unfortunate (there was one nearby vocal objection to it early in my screening). But it simply serves the material well, without necessarily paying tribute to anything (at most, it recalls The Last Picture Show in setting and composition). Paramount, trotting out their rarely used Vantage label, must be hoping that the film's resonant, poignant material will overshadow any reservations some adult moviegoers might have about watching a movie that isn't in color. The studio is slowly rolling out the film to rave reviews and palpable Oscar buzz. Both are warranted; I'd be surprised and disappointed if the Best Picture category doesn't have a nomination to give this.

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Related Reviews:
Nebraska
Directed by Alexander Payne: The Descendants | Now in Theaters: FrozenCaptain PhillipsGravity
The Straight StoryTrouble with the CurveThe Guilt TripWinter's BoneBadlands
Bruce Dern: The HoleThe LightkeepersFrom Up on Poppy Hill | June Squibb: The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernández
Frances HaBefore MidnightAmourInto the WildThat Evening Sun

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Reviewed November 27, 2013.



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