Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (Bruce Dern), Actress in a Supporting Role (June Squibb), Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael), Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson) and Directing (Alexander Payne), Nebraska is the tale of an aging, booze-addled Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son David (Will Forte) in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
A fool and his foolish son take a journey to claim a sweepstakes prize. The prize is Woody’s goal – throughout the film we find him meandering away from home, hotels, and hospitals to make his own way to Nebraska. We find ourselves hoping that he makes it to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. He may be a fool – but at least he has a goal.
There’s something oddly familiar about Nebraska – it isn’t that the plot is unoriginal or that the quiet and charming film is shot in stark black and white – its familiarity lies in its nostalgia, its characters and how they treat each other.
The largely “senior” cast is led by a taciturn Bruce Dern – whose vacant stares, bumbling and grumbling make up the shell of Woody Grant. On his fools’ errand, we learn that the core of the man is one that is soft-hearted and a little downtrodden. As Woody’s son explains, he [Woody] doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, he just believes what people tell him. Dern’s nomination is well deserved. He plays a pendulum of emotions and actions – frustratingly stubborn, ruefully discontent, and wickedly funny. Woody needs to get to Nebraska – not only to claim the prize for himself – but to prove to all of those naysayers that he, in fact, is a prize winner.
Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) are a fay cry from their larger than life caricatures of MacGruber and Saul Goodman. The sons of Woody Grant, David and Ross, are subdued, resigned and even defeated. It’s a nice reversal for the both of them. They don’t have much of a relationship with their father, which prompts David to take his father on his ill-advised trip to Nebraska. Woody is brushed off as ridiculous by his family – they talk about him as if he’s not in the room. The trip allows David to know his father as more than a moody drunk.
June Squibb plays Kate Grant, the matriarch of the family, who has more fire in her than any other character in the film. She is an adorable, foul-mouthed and obnoxiously sassy lady – but in truth – she played the part of long-suffering wife so wonderfully. The film truly came alive when she was on screen – and I’ll admit, I’m immature enough to have laughed out loud at a sweet looking old lady calling people “sluts” and “whores”.
As for the rest of the characters – mostly aging family and friends of the Grants, they are painted with a wide-sweeping brush of disdain – a little uninteresting and a little dumb – but once the prospect of cashing in on Woody’s fortune becomes a possibility – all of the meanness that money brings is slowly unfurled. As Kate Grant puts it “the vultures are circling before he’s in the grave”.
There’s a bit of nostalgia in this film, an Americana that seems to be breaking down – an “Anti-American Gothic” as some have termed it. Even so, it still manages to sneak up on you with its sentimentality and genuine characters.
Nebraska isn’t my favourite of this awards season, but it’s a little treasure of quiet and cutting wit. The pace of the film embodies the same lethargy that Woody carries in his frame – sluggish, a little off-balanced, but content with its progress. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, but for someone like me, it was just the right amount of nostalgia and familial bickering to make me feel right at home.