I am a huge fan of Alexander Payne. I think there are very few directors who concentrate so meticulously on characters and performances quite like him. He is truly an actor’s director, and every single one of his films have been masterclasses in performances. People like Jack Nicholson, Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon have career-highlight performances in Payne films, and his latest offering has a trio of fantastic performances by three otherwise eclectic actors.
Bruce Dern is the very epitome of film legend. He and Jack Nicholson were headed on the same road in the 1970s, starring in the counter-culture satirical comedies that populated cinemas around that time. Nicholson was the pretty boy who could play anything from charming to sociopathic. Dern, who was a frequent collaborator with Nicholson, was not so lucky. Dern was always the manic, sinister supporting player who was never to be trusted or disrespected for that matter. Dern had to wait nearly six decades for a suitable lead role to show off his talents, and that came in the form of Nebraska. In the film, Dern plays Woody Grant, a senile old man who is convinced he won a million dollars, and will go to any lengths to get that money, even though his son and wife try (and continuously fail) to convince him that it is just a scam. Dern has been described as not showing much range in his performance, being grumpy and just acting like a bitter old man. Perhaps he was, but I do believe that in order to create a character so grumpy and nasty, but have the audience adore him and make him a likable, endearing character, takes a massive collaboration between writer and performer. Woody Grant is not heroic or charming or even vaguely kind – but yet the audience can’t help but love him. Dern has been working in this business long enough to know how to handle a character such as Woody, and he is entirely dedicated to creating a wonderfully odd character that would otherwise be boring and hateful, and have viewers walking away.
Dern’s performance could only go so far by itself on its own merits. What made his performance so charming was his interactions with the other two main castmembers of this film. Will Forte, who is known for his surrealist comedy style and weird performances on Saturday Night Live, truly transcends his penchant for oddity by playing a character so completely cathartic and normal, it shines a new light on his abilities, not as a comedian, but as an actor. He may not be groundbreaking in his performance as Woody’s suffering son, but he is excellent in what he is given, and is a great straight man to the zany characters surrounding him. June Squibb is by now, along with Betty White, the most sought-after foul-mouthed granny in entertainment today. I won’t be that person who claims to have liked someone before they were popular, but I really did. When I first saw Squibb in 2002’s About Schmidt (which also, incidentally, was my first foray into the world of Payne) I thought she was a lot of fun and absolutely adorable. Over a decade later, nothing has changed. Supporting and minor performances may have kept her working, but it was only until Nebraska that something clicked. Her wonderfully sweet elderly lady persona, juxtaposed with her feisty personality really shows us something we hardly ever see. We have seen (and laughed to) foul-mouthed grannies, but they have never been more fully developed and wonderful as Squibb was here. It was truly a delightfully funny performance, and one that was totally unforgettable.
Performances aside (which is difficult, because the biggest part of this film’s success is its cast), the film itself is very…odd. It is two-hours long, and never really accomplishes much. The first act is incredibly slow, and the second act drags. However, the last stretch of the film is poignant and incredible. The film spends an hour and a half building up this tense, but friendly, relationship between father and son, but it is only near the end that we actually see the fruits of it. It is one of the more realistic representations of the father/son relationship I’ve seen in a while. There is no anger or bitterness between the two, but they are not best friends either. There are no huge changes in the relationship throughout the film – there is no huge fight and eventual reconciliation. It is just a son bearing his father’s brief moments of insanity.
Payne plays a lot with destroying cliche in Nebraska. First of all, the easy way to end this film would be to have Woody and David have a huge fight, and then Woody dies suddenly without having David forgive his father. The film ended in a very unconventional, and much sweeter and melancholic way than most films with similar stories would. The film isn’t filled with ups and downs, and different stories and happenings drastically changing the outcome of events. The film was set out in a very plain and simple manner, and got to where it needed to go in a very raw, realistic way. The black-and-white cinematography and the beautiful landscapes add so much to this film, and take it beyond the level of brilliant character study.
A fair warning is that Nebraska is very slow, and it is not a riveting watch. It is purely simplistic and raw, and portrays family in a very quiet, natural way. It is almost philosophical, and I loved it mainly because of its beauty and relentless dedication to character development, and boasting a trio of wonderfully quirky performances. Truly a great film.