Sitting in the theater for Nebraska, I was surprised that it’s doing as well as it is. That’s not because I didn’t like it or anything, I liked it and I thought it was good, but at the same time I was thinking that most people wouldn’t like it. It is a simple road movie, but the humor is kind of offbeat, the acting dead pan, and the black and white isn’t going to have anybody feeling too happy. I’m glad it’s doing well, regardless, but it still sort of surprises me.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old, alcoholic, and confused man who believes he has won a million dollars. The letter leading him to believe this tells him to go to the company’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize. What he doesn’t realize is that he only has a chance of winning a million dollars (maybe, depending on how legit this company is), not a guarantee. He got his license taken away some time ago, so he sets out on foot repeatedly, before being picked up by the cops each time and sent home. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), grows increasingly annoyed with Woody’s antics and calls their two sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte), for help. Ross and Kate are ready to put him in a nursing home, but David decides his father needs something to do and decides to take him to Nebraska to spend some time with him.
The film stays true to the formula of a road movie, and the two get into lots of shenanigans along the way and have some bonding moments. There’s a cute moment when they’re looking for Woody’s dentures along the train tracks that gets repeated later when they’re looking for his lost letter on the sidewalk. The most memorable part of the film is when the pair gets waylaid in Hawthorne, Nebraska after Woody falls and hurts his head. Hawthorne is where David and Ross spent their childhood and most of the extended family still lives there. Kate and Ross come down for the weekend and the whole family has a big get together.
This is the part of the film I related to most. The Grant family isn’t particularly interesting or notable, and most of them are in old age with nothing to do. The multiple scenes of all the old Grant brothers sitting around the TV watching football and not talking much really resonated with me. I’ve been to that New Year’s Day party before! (That’s really the only time I would see my extended family beyond my grandparents.) There’s an especially humorous conversation involving what car one of the brothers used to drive, and it’s not that funny in itself, but it had me laughing hysterically as I’ve witnessed conversations like that before and the whole thing is just so deadpan! That seams to be Payne’s method for the whole movie, he puts mildly funny or just plain ridiculous or pathetic situations in the most serious of lights, thereby making them funnier. An example that comes to mind is when Woody’s degenerate nephews wait to ambush him outside a tavern in order to steal his letter. I dare you to not laugh at the sight of them.
Not everything is fun and games though, as Woody still mistakenly believes he’s going to win a million dollars and keeps broadcasting it to people. All of his old friends and family suddenly remember that Woody owes them money, even though of course he doesn’t. Most dangerous of all these “friends” is Woody’s old business partner, Ed Peagram (Stacy Keach), who stole his air compressor back in the seventies. He threatens to bring lawyers into this and David’s sticking up for his dad against this loser is pretty heartwarming. The air compressor thing also turns out to be one of the funniest running gags in 2013 film.
There is a lot of character development throughout the film, as David discovers a lot of his dad’s past that he had no idea about previously. This really got me to thinking about another theme of the film: the passage of time. Characters throughout the film deny that anything has changed, but that is clearly false. The family visits graves at one point, and see the graves of people they didn’t know were dead. (“Catholics wouldn’t be caught dead around all these damn Lutherans!”) They visit the house that Woody grew up in, and though Kate jokes that it looks the same, it clearly isn’t. Almost everybody in this film looks older than they probably are, a lot of time has gone by over the years. That sounds like a really obvious statement, but as you watch the film it’s apparent to the audience even though the characters deny it. They’re caught in the inertia of the everyday, and it’s only through this trip to Nebraska that the family is getting out of it.
And now for a look at the Oscariness of this film. I’m really glad it got nominated for best picture, as it’s a good movie and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it should win, but I’m glad it’s there just the same. I’m glad to see Bruce Dern nominated, but I feel like I would have nominated Will Forte over him. “Over him” is not really the right thing to say, because I feel like Dern should be in supporting and Forte in lead and I would have nominated both of them in those categories. This is a lot like the situation you had with The Godfather, Brando got lead and won, while Pacino, who is actually the main character in that movie, gets nominated for supporting and doesn’t even win. With Pacino in that one and Forte in this one, they are the ones you follow throughout the movie and identify with, rather than the supporting characters who are the fathers that are still important to the story, but not the ones its mainly concerns itself with. Regardless, everyone does well here, including June Squibb who’s up for supporting actress. She’s mostly there for comic relief and does it well, and I wouldn’t really consider that nomination worthy except for this great scene where she chews out the degenerate cousins and an aunt for asking for Woody’s nonexistent money. She’s really great in that scene and it elevates her character a lot. The cinematography nomination is the most baffling to me, as the only really notable thing about it as far as I can tell is that it’s in black and white. As for screenplay, I’d be rooting for this to win if it wasn’t for Her.
I really liked Nebraska. Maybe because I haven’t seen any of Payne’s other films, but it really feels different and off the beaten track, even though the basic plot of a road movie is something we’ve all seen many times before. I loved the strange humor and the very real depiction of family. The film is funny and dramatic in equal measure, but never goes for the cheap laughs or sentimentalism. I don’t know how much it’s going to get in terms of awards, but I wish it the best of luck.
“Have a drink with your old man. Be somebody!”
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