Alexander Payne’s name is not well-known. Hearing it, most people would draw a blank. Payne is a motion picture director, whose name will probably never be mentioned in the same breath as those of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. And that’s a damn shame.
By way of review, Payne directed “About Schmidt,” the best of the “old man” Jack Nicholson movies, “Sideways,” my favorite picture of 2004, and “The Descendants,” my favorite film of 2011. Now he’s done it again. While Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years A Slave” is the all-important “issue” film of the year – still the front-runner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar – Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is nothing short of a minor masterpiece, and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen in my life.
Longtime character actor Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a mildly senile old coot who mistakenly believes he’s won a Publishers’ Clearing House type giveaway of a million dollars, and is bound and determined to travel to Nebraska to claim his prize. Eventually, his son David, played by Will Forte, agrees to drive him there. Along the way, the two visit their old Nebraska hometown and reconnect with old friends and family.
While this may not sound particularly interesting, suffice to say that Bob Nelson’s screenplay is brilliant, in that the backstories and personalities of all the characters are fully developed without overloading us with dialog. Much as in “Sideways,” as much is said in the silence between actual lines of dialog than in the dialog itself. And Payne’s decision to shoot in glorious black and white lends an aura of authenticity to the material. The years of decay in Dern’s hometown take on a more realistic quality in black and white. This fictional Nebraska town could be transplanted to Indiana, and it could substitute for any of our family hometowns – most of the residents are elderly, nothing has changed in decades, and few words need to be spoken to catch up with family business.
The casting is spot-on. Bruce Dern’s heyday passed about thirty years ago, and he never had a starring role in anything. His nasal Midwestern twang and faraway eyes typecast Dern as the half-crazed neighbor or friend who always seemed on the verge of insanity. Here, his face is grizzled by years of alcohol abuse and low-paying odd jobs. His Woody Grant is a character we all know – the guy who could have made more of his life than he did, yet everybody still likes him. He’s not so much senile as he is a dreamer – ever-trusting of human nature and the genuine goodness of people he doesn’t even know.
Forte is strong in the much less glamorous role of the straight-man son, who reconnects with his old man after years of distance. June Squibb plays Woody’s wife, Kate – an overpowering loose-lipped old woman who’s almost as loony as Woody, although much more grounded in reality. Squibb and Dern are so good they could each be candidates for acting awards at next February’s Oscars.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved “Nebraska.” It’s depiction of Midwestern values, landscapes and speech patterns is as accurate as those of the Coen Brother’s “Fargo.” The family dynamics – nuclear and extended – are spot-on. The script is dynamite, and so is the acting. I wish I could walk you through several funny scenes without giving away too much information, but I cannot do so without screaming “spoiler alert.” But suffice to say that the final scene is one I’ll remember the rest of my life. If you see one film this holiday season, make it “Nebraska.” You can thank me later.