In many ways a companion piece to his marvelous character study “About Schmidt,” Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” expands that portrait of the American heartland to an entire family of folks with comically taciturn and often mule-headed ways.
The film features a number of superb acting performances, none more so than from Bruce Dern — who won best actor at Cannes for his role as an aging father and husband whose mental drifts tax everyone in the family — and June Squibb, as his acid-tongued and mostly fed-up wife.
Payne and longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shoot in black-and-white Cinemascope reminiscent of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” so that the big skies, empty small-town streets and endless miles of prairie cast the mind back to another era.
It recalls old movies by John Ford or even Martin Ritt’s “Hud” where people moved in a westerly direction in search of fate and fortune. Now everything’s been abandoned. All the young people have left, leaving behind old folks who gaze at TV, sit in saloons or simply by the side of the road to watch the world go by.
The film ping-pongs between comedy and drama and never settles on either. Payne sees how you might smile at these folks’ quaint manner of speech and stubbornness. But he also lets you see the dark parts of their lives and how that stubbornness helps them to cope.
So he never asks you to laugh at them but rather understand how and why this country creates a certain inwardness, a willingness to share only so much even with family members. You may speak your mind yet prefer to keep quiet about those things others have no need to know.
Dern’s Woodrow T. Grant — Woody to one and all — and his son David (Will Forte), long ago transplanted to Billings, Montana, unexpectedly pass through at their former home of Hawthorne, Nebraska. While there they pay a visit to kin they seldom see — and for good reason.
The topic of conversation then settles for a moment on an uncle’s damaged foot. “How is it?” someone asks. “It’s okay,” he mutters. “Just hurts.”
No need for any more talk on that subject.
A while later, David asks his father if he ever love his mother. “It never came up,” Woody snaps.
See how this works? You speak directly in everything you say while avoiding the point at all costs.
Everything begins when Woody gets a publishing house’s sweepstakes notice in the mail informing him he has won a million dollars if he claims his prize. He fails to notice the fine print that says he must have a winning number.
In his mind he has won. No amount of coaxing by David or his mom can convince him otherwise. So in order to prevent a nearly daily escape from the family’s weathered home to walk the 850 miles to Lincoln, Neb., David decides to take off from work and drive his dad there.
This odyssey, which David’s mom Kate and newsman-anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), will soon join, metaphorically takes the family back into its past. The stopover in Hawthorne sheds some light on Woody’s chronic alcoholism, his courtship of Kate and relationships (or lack thereof) with family and friends.
But not in an overtly dramatic way, mind you. These are small reveals into the vast open spaces of a man’s life. The movie is too smart to think it can capture all of a man in a couple of hours.
Woody’s sweepstakes “win” has a curious though not unexpected impact on Hawthorne folks: Everyone believes it with the same fervor that Woody does.
Some such as his old partner Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach) see it as a chance to reclaim money owed or lost to Woody’s supposedly wanton ways. Other family members suddenly remember long-ago debts of dubious merit.
Kate reminds anyone who cares to listen that it’s more like the other way around — Woody’s good nature made him such an easy touch that even a million bucks won’t make up for his losses.
Then there’s that former girlfriend of Woody’s (Angela McEwan), who runs the local but dying newspaper: She’d love to do a story about his big winnings — and inadvertently provides a major window of insight into Woody’s past previously unknown to his son.
Nebraska is where Payne was born and clearly the filmmaker has a fondness for a people in that part of the country as evidenced in “About Schmidt.” So the first surprise is that this film, alone among his features, was not written or co-written by him.
No, the screenwriter is Bob Nelson, born in South Dakota but from the Seattle area where he worked on the sketch TV show, “Almost Live!” Yet you’d swear the film was written by Payne. It honors his wry sense of humor and a wit not unlike that found in the best of Preston Sturges.
The characters are vivid and original. Woody isn’t really senile — or at least not all the time. He uses it for his own purposes you suspect. However, he has developed a naivety in which, as David puts it, “he just believes what people tell him.”
Kate speaks her mind with a shocking candor. After a lifetime with Woody, she’s earned the right. Squibb, who had a small role in “About Schmidt” as Jack Nicholson’s wife, gets the role of a lifetime here and makes the most of it.
Nelson feeds her all the screenplay’s best lines such as “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch wanted to be a millionaire.” Or, standing over the grave of a former male suitor with her skirt hiked up: “See what you could’ve had, Keith, if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time?”
Life’s too short for anything less than candor and direct talk, she figures. No use in searching for a polite word when a good cuss or unvarnished colloquialism will do just fine.
Forte, a former “SNL” comic, must play straight man to all this elder comedy. He acquits himself brilliantly. In probably the movie’s toughest role, he becomes the spectator’s eyes and ears into this troubled family.
Odenkirk’s job as a TV anchor for once isn’t a butt of jokes as nearly all anchormen in movies are. (Paging Ron Burgundy.) Someone in this family has actually gotten somewhere, and he does so by being as different and as estranged from the family as he possibly can.
No wonder. The family that greets the Grants in Hawthorne is American Gothic crossed with the Addams Family.
Two dim-witted brothers — one of whom was convicted of “sexual assault” but not rape and he’ll explain to you the difference — sit on a couch and crack up constantly over the fact it took David two days to drive 750 miles. Was he going backwards or driving a dump truck?
Payne has cast locals in many of these scenes to great effect. The results are comic scenes that walk a fine line between local color and satiric caricature.
Meanwhile Mark Orton’s score consists of a few strings and a guitar mostly. It’s perfect.
So with “Nebraska” the fall movie season for adults has finally gotten underway.
Opens: November 15, 2013 (Paramount Vantage)
Production: Paramount Vantage in association with FilmNation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment presents a Bona Fide production
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Doug Mankoff, Neil Tabatznik, George Parra, Julie M. Thompson
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Dennis Washington
Music: Mark Orton
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
R rating, 114 minutes