Alexander Payne's latest enjoyed early Oscar buzz thanks to Bruce Dern's stand-out performance as an ageing father/husband on a (possibly futile) quest to claim his $1M prize which he believes to have won through the post.
Despite the black and white cinematography, a new stylistic move for the director, Nebraska seemed like typical Payne fodder: like About Schmidt meets Sideways with a dash of The Descendants. Not many tell bittersweet tales of loneliness and screw-ups quite as well as Alexander Payne. This time, the focus is the relationship between Will Forte's average dude David and his father Woody, played by Dern, who brings a crystal-like fragility to the proceedings. After 12 Years A Slave and, possibly, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska was the most emotional film of last year since most people, especially those who have experienced taking care of an elderly family member, could instantly relate to David's situation and fear for Woody's well-being. Although Nebraska treads familiar ground and those who know Payne's work won't be too shocked by several aspects of this movie, from the quirky and weird family members, to the short mini-outbursts of anger or comedy amidst the overall quietness and the whole road trip scenario, the film's portrayal of old age and different generations meeting at a crossroads is so valid and perfectly crafted that it won't matter. It's like if you took the last minute of About Schmidt, captured its essence and made a whole film around that. It's a subtly heartbreaking story subtly told and, by the end of the film, if you're not crying at least inside, if you're not at least a little depressed and concerned about your own mortality then you might need a bigger heart transplant.
Dern's completely unpretentious, genuine performance as the brittle fellow on a journey back to where he grew up and to a hopeful yet uncertain future is obviously the soul of the film and Payne, through a reliably sharp, well thought-out script, still manages to not embellish Woody too much: he's still very much flawed and human. You understand more and more about this man of few words as the film goes on and you'll end up being pretty protective of him, much like David is in fact. Will Forte was certainly a weird casting choice as you wouldn't necessarily expect to see "MacGruber" himself in such an arty flick, same goes for Bob Odenkirk who pops up as David's brother, but he definitely pulls it off. June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife, also turns in a terrific (Oscar nominated) performance in a more substantial role than the one she was given in About Schmidt, bringing life to a character you didn't think would become this prominent and likeable from the film's opening 15 minutes. Nebraska's definitely not all tears and gloom, though. All the wit you'd expect from a classic Alexander Payne flick is well and truly there and everyone gets a laugh here and there, even good old Dern whose dry, deadpan sense of humour works wonders throughout. This is quite probably Payne's most restrained film to date and, although it may not be quite as accessible, light and straight-up fun as his other works, it's still a worthy, classy effort deserving of the praise it received.
Nebraska is a quiet, sober movie which doesn't so much make a whole lot of noise as it does whisper something sad and thought-provoking into your ear. It still gets its point across beautifully, though, and Payne fans won't be disappointed. Although it would have been nice to see Dern walk away with that golden statuette, perhaps the film is more powerful without all the superficial bells and whistles.