Alexander Payne films sort of sneak up on you. Working to a different tempo than most other notable American directors today, Payne offers the prospect of gentle comedy, only to underpin his stories with heartfelt depth and wryly subversive observations. He seems particularly adept at reflecting the humdrum of everyday life, while at the same time celebrating it. His characters may appear silly or misguided, but he clearly has a fondness for them. They may frequently be the butt of the joke, but it’s rarely mean-spirited. Payne loves these people and their small dramas, low ambitions and cantankerous family meals.
After the relatively exotic excursions to Californian wine country (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), Payne returns us to the square states of the Mid West for his latest film. Shot in beautifully melancholy monochrome, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) an ageing booze-hound who receives a marketing letter in the mail telling him he has won $1 million. Unable or unwilling to read the small print, Woody sets himself on walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. He’s not going to trust the postman with money like that.
Understandably concerned for his pop’s well-being, Woody’s youngest son David (Will Forte) caves to the old man’s insistence and agrees to drive him there. However a lengthy stop over in the sleepy town of Hawthorne where Woody spent a good share of his days will lead to a Grant family reunion, as relatives and old friends appear out of the woodwork sniffing out Woody’s mythical windfall.
With its old geezer central figure, fool’s errand story and pastoral score, it’s hard not to think of The Straight Story when watching Nebraska. And while it is true that the two films share some striking similarities, this is very much a Payne movie and sits more comfortably as a companion piece to his other films, particular About Schmidt with which it shares a key cast member (June Squibb). There’s a similar sense of forlorn ambitions beneath the washed out skies presented here, of people living lives of limited significance, resigned to their lot in life or simply content with it. This is the America of family lunches and sleepy afternoons in front of the television. Where a drinking problem isn’t necessarily a drinking problem, because what else are you gonna do?
As with The Descendants, familial obligations preoccupy Nebraska. Payne, working from a knowing script by Bob Nelson, conjures the mundane hassle of dealing with quarrelsome kin with loving wit. To read Nebraska as an attack on middle-America is to miss the nostalgia and sentiment etched into the film. A modern snapshot of people who will leave no great legacy, but who are important to one another and are an intrinsic part of their place in the world.
During their visit, Woody visits the tumbled down home he grew up in. It’s a quietly, beautifully effective sequence, playing out in a series of simple, evocative shots. With tremendous economy, Payne show us how the passing of time will get to us all.
It’s a refreshingly grounded and grown up approach when compared with so many of Payne’s contemporaries. But if that makes Nebraska sound like a chore then I’m doing the film a great disservice. The humour here is as broad as Payne has ever dared to play it. The aforementioned Squibb, playing Woody’s wife Kate, is afforded much more screen time than she was in About Schmidt and chews over some deliciously funny dialogue, her every kooky revelation whitewashing David’s face. While a set piece involving a barn and an air compressor will no doubt leave you grinning ear to ear. This is a very funny movie, lampooning small town trivialities just as it embraces them.
Much of the dramatic heavy lifting is done by Dern and Forte, both as good as each other. Dern’s Woody is strikingly ramshackle, bordering on enfeebled. It is a sad portrait of a man who knows he is on the downward slope and is bitterly fighting to get one last hurrah. Forte meanwhile brings empathy to David, a man realising that time with his father is very much on the clock, indulging him out of tired love. Their bond is genuinely touching without ever being overplayed. It’s judged just right, and is one of the many, many facets of this wonderful movie which justifies what I have to say next.
This is Alexander Payne’s best film. And one of the best American films of the last few years.
The bittersweet mix of sadness and humour satisfies from beginning to end. As with The Straight Story it’s easy to imagine people complaining about the pace here, but I would never complain about Nebraska being slow. Even as two dimwitted relatives of Woody’s chastise the father and son for their ambling progress across country, the movie itself is perfectly measured, running at the same pace as it’s characters’ lives. I wasn’t bored for a second watching this film. Payne shoots simply but effectively. Black and white is an excellent choice here, imbuing the film with the feeling of an old family album. It’ll be a joy in the years to come to dust it off and have another look through at the people and the places visited along the way.
This is also a picture for people to enjoy across the board, and I hope it reaps the audience figures it deserves. Like John Hughes or Kevin Smith (and – whisper it – with far greater success than either of those two), Payne is delivering a series of pictures that feel interconnected and serve as modest statements about the world we live in today. Not a world of guns and car chases and supermodel sex, but of bickering families, weekend drives, visits to the garage and unfulfilled dreams. Nebraska is a rich and giving experience, and I encourage everyone reading to see it.