There are several interesting choices that went into making Nebraska. Written by Bob Nelson, it’s the film to be directed by Alexander Payne where Payne didn’t have some input into the screenplay. And, against Paramount Vantage’s wishes, Payne chose not only to film in black and white but cast the actors he wanted rather than the big stars the studio was pushing for. Given his clout, the two-time Oscar winner got his way and the results certainly justify each of those decisions and Payne delivers a family drama, road trip, and slice-of-life take of middle America that is a joy to watch.
We first meet the Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) attempting to walk from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Confused after receiving a sweepstakes form in the mail, Woody is certain he has won $1,000,000 and will not be talked out his trip by either his overbearing and long-suffering wife (June Squibb) or either of his two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Despite being dragged back home several times, Woody consistently sets out again on his treck believing he is perfectly able to walk 800 miles to collect his reward.
Feeling a bit out of place himself after his recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend (Missy Doty), and wanting to offer his mother a bit of a break, David decides to take a leave of absence from hawking stereo equipment to drive his father to the imagined winnings that he will never be able to claim. Spending some quality time together on the road, the pair’s road trip will have quite a few detours including a (very short) stop at Mt. Rushmore and a trip to Woody’s old home of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where news of his good luck quickly spreads like wildfire.
Set against stark backdrops of fields, farmhouses, small towns, and roadways, the beauty of Nelson’s script comes from the well-worn but still awkward relationships between family members. The pair of weary travelers’ arrival in Hawthorne also introduces the audience to Woody’s brother (Rance Howard) and his sons (Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray) along with many more members of the surrounding family who come out of the woodwork demanding their cut of his winnings including Woody’s old friend and one-time business partner Ed Pegram (played with by evil relish by Stacy Keach).
Given that everyone believes his father’s story, David finds it increasingly hard to convince anyone that the entire situation is nothing more than a big misunderstanding even after David’s mother and brother arrive in town for support.
Built around the performances of Dern and Forte, Payne gets the best of both of his leads while populated the rest of the film with a variety of odd characters all of whom feel right at home in the middle of the Heartland. Dern is likely to get the lion’s hare of attention as the obsessed but confused alcoholic but I was most impressed with Will Forte who I’ve never given a second-thought (let alone a first one other than having a mild disinterest to most of his various characters on Saturday Night Live). Despite the studios initial objections, Payne’s casting works.
Nebraska may not rank among director Alexander Payne’s best films but the director succeeds with this tale of an odd cross-country journey more about reconnecting and standing-up for family than mythical millions. Dern anchors the film with a performance of ornery determination and wistful regret (of which he never speaks). As with all of Payne’s films, Nebraska is filled with humor and heart and a knack for understanding and presenting middle America in humorous ways without the need ever to fall back on cliche.