By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Perhaps the perfect third title in Alexander Payne’s road trip trilogy, Nebraska is pure unadulterated Payne; and that is surprising considering that his latest script came not from his usual partner, Jim Taylor, but from new collaborator Bob Nelson. Still, Nebraska has all the right elements which make his previous road films About Schmidt and Sideways wonderful, but still presents fresh material without being redundant. Hopefully, this doesn’t sound like a slight to Jim Taylor, because I admire and respect his previous work with Payne very much, but if I hadn’t been aware of Taylor’s absence on this film, I wouldn’t have guessed another writer had penned the script. Perhaps this simply indicates the skill and ability Alexander Payne has, as a director, to present the material with his signature style.
Starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern, Nebraska follows a father and son as they trek from Montana to Nebraska and bond along the way. Woody Grant (Dern) receives a notice in the mail that he has “won” millions of dollars in a magazine sweepstakes giveaway. Determined to claim his prize despite his family’s attempts to talk him out of it, Woody sets out on foot to the company’s headquarters in Lincoln. Woody’s son David (Forte) hesitantly decides to drive his father there, in order to protect him from injury. During a stop in Woody’s hometown, David and Woody get reacquainted with relatives, old friends and colleagues. David discovers that there is much more to learn about his old man and his mother Kate (June Squibb), and their experiences draw them closer together.
As I previously stated, I really don’t see a huge difference with the change in screenwriters. All of the quirky and hilarious characters and scenarios that one comes to expect with Alexander Payne’s films are ever present. The satirical wit and sharply written comedy remain. Not only is this film the first time Payne has worked with Bob Nelson, but it is also the first time Payne didn’t contribute to the screenplay. So, either Bob Nelson is a writer created in laboratory with Jim Taylor’s and Alexander Payne’s genes, or he just knows how to write what Payne wants in film.
With the exception of June Squibb, who starred in About Schmidt, Nebraska’s cast consists of mostly actors new to Alexander Payne’s filmography. I sincerely applaud Will Forte in his least silly role, and one that requires much depth and heart. Bruce Dern is simply amazing as Woody, the old, worn out and slightly confused patriarch who wants one last shot at glory before his life concludes. The hilarious standout of the film is definitely Squibb, who is an absolute riot as the incomparable, no-nonsense, sharp tongued and uncompromising wife and mother. Hers is a more protective tough love and is willing to kick ass when necessary to protect her family. She is also willing to kick ass within her family to set them straight.
The film also features great and usually amusing appearances by Bob Odenkirk (Ross Grant), Stacy Keach (Ed Pegram), Rance Howard (Uncle Ray), and some hilarious performances by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as cousins Bart and Cole. As usual Payne and his casting department have done well in their selection of their actors and continue Payne’s tradition of casting actors in atypical roles with Forte as the straight man.
Even though it would be really cool and exciting to see Payne do something boldly different, there is something comforting about his style of filmmaking and storytelling. He and his collaborators know just how to blend comedy and drama, true to life characters and realistic scenarios. With Nebraska, Payne does it again and does it quite beautifully. The lovely black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is also worth mentioning, as it perfectly gives the film a simple and understated look. The characters and their heartfelt story radiate gorgeous colors of their own and don’t need enhancement to luster.