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Nebraska

Nebraska Poster.jpgIt’s not the fact that Alexander Payne has never made a bad movie.  It’s the fact that Payne has never made a good movie.  For some reason he seems to only make great movies, and Nebraska is now one of them.

Payne’s films have pretty much the same thread running through them.  They seem completely depressing and miserable on the surface, but there’s a ton of humor, thought, love, and playful awkwardness that pushes them past the inherent desperation.  His films are built with characters that exist in everyday life, and he’s able to take a sliver of those lives and create something really specially on the big screen.

Bruce Dern plays (in a role Oscar should seriously be talking about) Woody Grant, an old man who lives in Billings, Montana, who believes that he has won 1 million dollars in a sweepstakes.  He needs to go to the company headquarters in Nebraska in order to collect it.  His wife Kate, hilariously played by June Squibb, can’t talk any sense in to Woody, making him realize that he hasn’t really won any money.  They bicker and fight like any old couple, and Woody decides he’ll go to Nebraska himself, so he starts walking there from Montana.  Woody’s son David (Will Forte) intervenes, and succumbs to the fact that he will have to drive his father to Nebraska to show him that he in fact hasn’t won any money at all.

David puts up with his father but thinks nothing of him but as a crotchety old drunk, that never really cared about him or his brother Ross (Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk “Better Call Saul!”).  He loves his father, but it’s a love that is there because well…he’s his father and he’s supposed too.  He lives a simple life like most people in Billings.  He tries to make ends meet as a salesman in a local electronic’s store, but times are tough as they are for most people in those areas.  In his mind he and has father are complete opposites, but he soon realizes a lot about his father on the trip to Nebraska that tells him otherwise.

Woody drinks too much one night and has an accident, causing their trip to be derailed as Woody has to spend the night in the hospital.  Woody and David decide to stop in Woody’s hometown, meeting up with friends and family, and learning a lot about Woody’s life as a young man.  It’s only when Woody decides to tell everybody about his million dollars that things get really interesting.  It seems all those friends and family believe they’re entitled to some of that money….even if they can’t be convinced by David that it doesn’t exist.

Dern is absolutely fantastic as Woody.  He stumbles around like an old drunk, barely uttering any syllables, and getting himself (actually more like getting his son) into hilarious situations.  Nebraska is the perfect slice of the mid-west, rural lifestyle.  Anyone who watches the film will be able to identify with characters that exist in their own lives.  Some becoming more meaningful than others perhaps.  I know that I did.  It amazes me that Payne is able to take the most simple scenes and turn them into something really special and hilarious.  Something as simple as family sitting around watching TV on a normal day, becomes one of the most awkward hilarious scenes in the film.  (This is something I experience almost every holiday, as I’m sure most people do)

Alexander Payne’s characters mostly deal with the male mid-life crisis or identity.  Most famously with Miles from Sideways, Jim in Election, and now David in Nebraska.  He has a tricky way of doing it as well.  His films begin focusing on one character and that focus moves towards what turns out to be the main character.  Nebraska is the story of Woody, but it’s really the story of David and how he begins to understand his life in the context of his father’s.

Payne has become a master of the subtle cinema.  The film is shot in stark and black and white and it works here.  The canvas is as muted as some of the simple family bonds that we encounter.  It actually adds to how hilarious the film really is.  His films are built on the slow build of great characters and relationships, and Nebraska is one of his best.  As I sit here writing this my mind keeps going back to some of those fantastic scenes in the film.  I think further open the layers that Payne has created, and that is the hallmark of a classic.

Grade: A+