"Doesn't look finished to me."I don't have any really crippling fears. Spiders, snakes, heights, crowds...I'm sort of fine with all this stuff. The one thing that truly freaks me out is the gradual decay of both my body and my mind as I grow older. The physical part I can deal with, annoying as it may be, but the mental element is the stuff of my nightmares. The idea that some day my faculties may whither to the point where I'm struggling to grasp even the simplest parts of the world around me and that there's simply nothing I can do about it absolutely terrifies me. Granted, at 30 years old I've got plenty of time before I'm battling off the demons of outright senility, but I can already feel myself slipping a bit. Sometimes I have trouble coming up with exactly the right word I want to use or remembering the name of that actor who was in that one movie. (Seriously, a few weeks ago I spent a half hour trying to remember Jeremy Renner's name. In fact, it happened again just now while writing that sentence.) Maybe I should start playing some of those goofy memory games that are designed to keep your mind sharp. One of my grandmothers is currently grappling with effects of Alzheimer's, and sometimes it feels as if the disease is hanging over my head like the goddamn sword of Damocles. I fully expect that when I see her on Christmas Eve, I'll end up having at least one conversation with her twice over the course of the night. It's no fun for me to see her straining to remember my wife's name, but I have to imagine it's exponentially worse for her. Then again, maybe she has no idea what she's missing.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) isn't quite there yet, but he's well on his way. A cranky old shit who drinks too much and seemingly has little interest in either his wife (June Squibb) or his two sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), Woody has become obsessed with a piece of bullshit marketing mail claiming that he's won a million dollar prize. He's determined to get himself to the company's offices in Nebraska in order to claim his winnings despite the fact that he no longer has a license. After attempting the journey twice on foot, his less successful son David (Forte) decides to take his old man on the road for a few days in order to get all this nonsense out of his system. They end up detouring through Woody's hometown for a few days and spending time with some of the old coot's family and former friends, all of whom become enamored with the idea that Woody's about to become a millionaire.
It's a deceptively simple story and the pace of the thing is pretty deliberate, but like any good road trip movie, Nebraska revels in the journey, not the destination. We all know that Woody's not going to end up with a pile of cash at the end (made stunningly clear when they arrive at the hilariously nondescript offices of the sweepstakes company) but the real joy comes from watching Woody making his way in the big wide world that's forgotten him while David slowly gains a better understanding of his gruff father by exploring the places and people that were so important in his younger days. Alexander Payne manages a delicate dance of tone here, balancing the seriously morose with the refreshingly lighthearted. Visually, we're presented with the dilapidated wasteland of the midwest, full of abandoned farms and crumbling ghost towns. Much like Paper Moon, these are the authentic dregs of Americana, made all the more bleak by the stark black and white photography. And yet, this movie is funny. Like, really funny.
Will Forte is the film's not-so-secret weapon; put a dramatic actor in that role and the whole film becomes mired in the awful degradation of Woody Grant's psyche. But instead we've got a comedian, and while he's certainly not playing things super broadly, Forte just can't help but find the humor in any given situation, bringing a light touch to the proceedings. (The same goes for Odenkirk.) Forte is quite good, proving that he brings a lot more to the table than the insane caricatures that made him so famous on SNL. I'd love to see him tackle another dramatic role like this. But more importantly, Forte frees up Bruce Dern and allows him really sink his teeth into the role of Woody, taking some great risks onscreen. In a way, so much of Woody can be summed up simply by Dern's choice of posture, bent over almost at a ninety-degree angle and waddling back and forth down the sidewalk like a penguin with scoliosis. It's inherently funny at first, but the more you watch him trudging around, the sadder it becomes. This is a guy who's spent his whole life chewing out those closest to him and who has in no way softened with age, but he can also see the end coming and he's desperate for some kind of victory before he goes. Bruce Dern gives a career performance and I'll be pretty sad when he inevitably gets snubbed come awards season.
Nebraska is a film filled with incredible talent. Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll score some great laughs as David's hulking, dimwitted cousins who want to get their hands on Woody's mythical fortune, while Stacy Keach is unsurprisingly awesome as Woody's former friend and business partner who feels that he's owed something, despite the fact that he almost certainly stole Woody's much ballyhooed air compressor. Keach is a barrel of charming menace, and you haven't lived until you've seen his karaoke rendition of "In The Ghetto." They even managed to find a way to squeeze in Rance Howard as Woody's brother! But it's June Squibb who frequently steals the show as Woody's long suffering wife Kate, a sharp-tongued dame who's long since outgrown the need for polite decorum. Old ladies swearing is always funny, and Squibb is game for anything, be it cussing out family members or doing terribly inappropriate things in a cemetery.
But along with all these familiar faces are a lot of Nebraska locals, most of whom had never acted before. And they kill. There's a scene with a bunch of guys sitting around watching football and talking about cars they used to own. There are about six lines of dialogue in the whole thing and it's probably about 90% silence, but right in front is this unknown guy carrying half the scene with absolutely perfect timing. There's a later scene between Forte and an older woman who runs the local newspaper and used to have a thing for Woody when they were kids. It's a really lovely scene and she gets this beautiful little coda at the very end of the film that just absolutely knocked me sideways. Using first-time actors is always a gamble, but it's one that has frequently paid off for Alexander Payne thanks in large part to his casting director John Jackson. I actually spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Jackson while I was working at an agency in L.A. and he was casting The Descendants. Most casting agents are constantly hopping from one movie to the next and working with a wide variety of directors and producers, but Jackson works exclusively with Alexander Payne, which means he not only knows exactly what kind of performer the filmmaker is looking for in any given role and but also exactly what kind of people Payne will be able to work with. Jackson is incredibly specific in his criteria and he and Payne are always able to assemble a sharply talented collection of both veteran and rookie performers that more than rise to the occasion.
Nebraska received a pretty limited release outside of L.A. and New York, (it's just hitting Boston this weekend) so hopefully people are able to discover it on VOD and Blu. Personally I can't wait to own this one, as I suspect it's only going to get funnier and more poignant with age. If I'm lucky, my grandkids will say the same thing about me.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard,
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common