Six films in, and it seems Alexander Payne has established a basic framework that he is going to tell stories with for the rest of his life. As Nebraska showcases, this isn't a bad thing. Payne will find new stylistic tweaks to alter the formula a bit from time to time. But for those of us who have been watching his films from the beginning it's a shame that we may never see the sharp satire of that early work.
I can't imagine anyone in Nebraska becoming embroiled in a nation-wide controversy about abortion. It's equally unlikely that anyone in the universe of Nebraska is aware of anyone outside their immediate neighbors and the folks they grew up with. That's part of the charm of Payne's film, but it's another existential crisis for people who have had little to worry about in their lives.
Such is the case for a Payne movie. Since About Schmidt, he's specialized in a sort of middle-class malaise where people who feel like they've left no mark on the world are struggling to do something before they finally go off into that great darkness. Nebraska is populated with people a bit lower on the economic totem pole than the writers and island-owners that came with his past films, but still folks that have let ordinary concerns blossom into sores on an otherwise boring life. It's good, but all a bit too easy and familiar.
Nebraska's distinguishing mark against Payne's other work is a great focus on the place of the elderly in modern rural America. The focus is clear as early on we watch Woody (Bruce Dern) storm down the interstate with determination. The cop who stops him is worried, especially since Woody's plan is to make a several hundred mile trip to Nebraska to pick up his million dollar winnings an advertisement promises him. It's easy to see where this is going, old man is off his rocker and needs to be coddled a bit, but Payne, working from a pretty good script by Bob Nelson, isn't interested at poking fun or shielding Woody.
The best way of putting it is that Woody is a determined old fart. Nelson's script paints him as someone who is hard of hearing, and tends to block everything else out so that he can do what needs doin', but he's not someone who has to be taken care of. He's a mostly innocent guy, and had the good luck to get married to a boisterous woman who knows just how to point him in the right direction. June Squibb, who plays his wife, is a lot of fun and a strong character in her own right, but a bit more of the same kind of high volume, heavy attitude, women who populate Payne's films.
Dern, though, he makes Woody an amazing personality in a performance that's layered with a lot of interesting touches. He never let's Woody's eyes wander around, losing focus on what he's trying to accomplish. I also liked the half-second delay that kicked in anytime someone tried to get Woody's attention, as if he's bothered that the clarity of his world has to be changed to fit someone else's needs. But the key part, and why Nebraska has been so warmly received, is that Woody wears his disappointments so openly. One slow scene, when Woody is embarrassed by someone he thought was his friend, is especially heartbreaking as Dern keeps his gaze level and eyes wet as he quietly tries to reclaim his dignity.
His features play well into Payne's decision to film in black and white. Woody's hair and craggy face spring out from the perpetual gray of the skies and streets of his home town. Payne's sets show a little community that seems entirely sustained by the folks we watch onscreen and nothing more. It also becomes an interesting game of, “Where's Woody?” as the man is in just about every shot of the movie, trying to reclaim something to pass to his kids before he dies. It's another sign that Payne isn't just interested in the people talking around Woody, but how they react to him and he to they.
The rest of the film is filled with good humor and other strong performances. Will Forte, as Woody's son, hits the perfect note of tired, but resilient, patience and love for his dad. Also brilliant are the scenes involving Bob Odenkirk as the sort of type-A eldest sibling who just wants to take care of his father as efficiently as possible. They're put through some amusing situations, such as a slapfight Odenkirk gets involved in, and effective if familiar, as Forte's big showdown scene is.
All of this is pleasant, if not exactly revolutionary. Payne has gotten to the point where he can tell this story with a bunch of different quirks to the details, but the overall picture remains the same. It's a non-threatening, respectful, frequently chuckle-worthy film with no surprises, a monochrome color palette, and a whole lot of slightly above-average white folks. Perfect fodder for the Academy and audiences alike.
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Screenplay written by Bob Nelson.
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb.