Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska perfectly replicates that forlorn Midwest sensation of being trapped in rooms with hordes of impressionable, elderly relatives all living on the same slow-motion wavelength, visiting and reminiscing and comparing their amnesia levels and enjoying life’s remaining minutes at the speed of molasses, except when they’re jumping to conclusions at hyperspeed. When that happens to me, I put on a brave front while suppressing the desperate urge to crawl out of my skin. With SNL’s Will Forte acting as my proxy and reenacting my childhood family vacations so vividly, I’m surprised I didn’t convulse in my seat with flashbacks.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Cranky old Woody Grant (the frequently undervalued Bruce Dern) is an addle-pated coot who’s dead set on traveling from his home in Billings, MT, to Lincoln, NE (some 840 miles), to collect a million-dollar prize that a mail-order scam promises he won (fine print, schmine print). His son David (Forte, atoning for MacGruber and then some), rather than watch his dad kill himself trying to walk the distance — and he is foolish enough to try — agrees to drive him there so he can demand his winnings in person rather than trust the Post Office to do his legwork.
David knows it’s a scam, but volunteers anyway — to prove a point the hard way, for the bonding experience, to keep his dad from death by cross-country walking, or maybe just to see what happens. A stopover to visit family in Woody’s tiny (fictional) Nebraska hometown of Hawthorne occupies the movie’s second half, where news of Woody’s “winnings” spreads through the town like wildfire, leaving out the whole “scam” part. Celebration and awkwardness ensue in equal measure. Meanwhile, Woody’s put-upon wife (June Squibb — scorned, scorning, and plainspoken) doesn’t get any of this at all, wishes her longtime alcoholic husband would come to his senses, and fills her time gossiping about everyone she’s ever known.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) is David’s older newscaster brother, who’s not much help even though he’s one of the few characters anywhere near to reaching their dream. Stacy Keach is still intimidating after all these years as an old business partner with unresolved money issues. And as one of Woody’s numerous brothers, Rance Howard (father of Ron and Clint) proves at 85 he still has a certain charm and, unbeknownst to me, is still alive.
Nitpicking? Next to none, beyond four words that could be deleted and bring this down to TV-14. The road-trip geography all checks out. I love the little nuances of their journey. Right around the point where Sturgis would be, a pack of bikers passes their car. The small towns are covered in worn paint and littered with empty storefronts squeezed in between struggling old businesses. Mount Rushmore and the surroundings outside its gates match my memories from 2009. Too bad they couldn’t work in a pit stop for free ice water at Wall Drug.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Some say it’s not the journey, it’s the destination. Woody would disagree. Reaching Lincoln becomes the only thing that matters, because then and only then will his heroic quest be validated. In a life where even the most modest, mundane dreams are never achieved, the possibility of making just one thing better, no matter how unlikely, can be a wellspring of hope.
Also: when a stubborn mule has made up his mind about what he’s gonna do — even if it defies logic and the crowd of voices trying to yell some sense into his head — sometimes there’s just no way of stopping him except to let his folly run its course. Maybe something good will come of it anyway.
And: your elders had much richer, darker, ickier lives than you think. When they begin swapping gossip about each other’s sex lives from six decades ago, run away.
So did I like it or not? All of this could’ve been the recipe for a wacky comedy, but I’m pleased that the wackiness is sparing and the funniest parts are much more subtle. Dern’s occluded irascibility and Forte’s hapless exasperation are a great match-up of clashing frustrations. Squibb frequently wins the movie with her vast knowledge of every character’s sordid past. I’m not sure if New York or L.A. viewers appreciate the leisurely, Midwest pace or attitude, but I felt right at home, albeit thankful to be watching from afar instead of being literally, physically trapped in a room full of retirees talking about car engines. There were some really startling simulations of my ancestors here.
Caveat: it’s entirely in black-and-white, like The Artist or your great-grandma’s favorite movies. It’s not stylized film noir, just a choice on Payne’s part that adds to the sense of simple, static lives.
How about those end credits? No scene after the end credits, but they confirm the part of “Hawthorne” is played by the town of Plainview, NE, which is indeed on the way from Billings to Lincoln. It’s just a matter of knowing where to turn south off I-90 between Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
Curiously, this is the first movie I’ve noticed giving credit to a Factotum. Someone also insisted on a diaeresis over the second ‘o’ in every use of the word “coördinator”, like so, which upsets my spell-checker.