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Nebraska (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 10, 2022



Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Kevin Kunkel, Missy Doty, Ronald Vosta, Glendora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Dennis McCoig and Ronald Vosta.

Screenplay by Bob Nelson.

Directed by Alexander Payne.

Distributed by Paramount Vantage. 115 minutes. Rated R.

Bruce Dern was one of the finest actors of the 60s and 70s. However, somehow, he never quite received the notice of some of his contemporaries such as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. That indignity has continued and intensified into old age – while Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino and Caine still work with regularity, Beatty does not work often by choice and O'Neal is at the very least a tabloid favorite – Dern has mostly been well off the pop culture radar.

Dern has quietly continued working, though, often in indies and straight-to-video cheapies. The last time I personally saw him was in the sad supporting role of a New Orleans gangster boss in Inside Out, the 2011 vanity production for WWE wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque. Dern was just fine in the role, but it still seemed a huge waste of talent.

Therefore, while it is difficult to call Nebraska a career-defining role for Dern – just because he did so much fine work in his heyday – it should most certainly be a career-resurrecting role. Much like Clint Eastwood's Grand Am, Caine's Is Anybody There? and Nicholson's About Schmidt (also by Nebraska director Alexander Payne), Nebraska requires a selfless and total immersion into a character that is elderly and cantankerous and still make the audience care.

The performance is quietly stunning, an award-worthy tour de force in a film which has more than its share of fine acting. And if there is any fairness in the world at all, it will usher in an interesting final phase in Dern's career.

Filmed in stunning black and white, Nebraska is at once as chilly and drab as the state which gives the movie its name and at the same time surprisingly vital, loving and heart-touching. You forget how affecting monochromatic cinematography could be, even though it was periodically used for effect in the 70s and 80s for stuff like Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein and Raging Bull. It has fallen out of favor in recent decades (probably because they say that now, even though it seems counter-intuitive, black and white filmmaking (and film) is significantly more expensive than color.

I'm not sure the world needs a steady diet of black and white, however this film is a strong reminder how well it works in some instances.

Dern plays Woody Grant, an unkempt and angry older man, a casual alcoholic who appears to be in the early stages of dementia. However, he still has many moments of clarity as well. He has received one of those mail fliers which screams out "You have won $1 million dollars" and then says in smaller letters "If you have the winning numbers." Even though he lives in Billings, MT, Woody decides that he will walk to the contest people's offices in Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings.

The police keep bringing Woody back to his family. They are trying to deal with Woody, but each has their own crap going. There is his cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb in a role that is severely off-putting until in the end you realize she has somehow won you over). His older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a small-time TV news anchor just getting what he hopes may finally be his big break. His youngest son David (Will Forte) is a fellow lost soul who is stuck in a dead-end job selling stereos, has recently been dumped by his girlfriend (frankly, he is probably a bit too good for her) and a dingy apartment.

The family tries to explain to Woody that the contest is the scam, but he keeps breaking away to walk across country. Finally, David realizes that he needs a bit of time away himself and agrees to drive his dad – who he was always somewhat estranged from – to Nebraska. Beyond the time off, he hopes to spend a little time with his dad, who was always so cut off emotionally and now obviously does not have much time left.

David is an eye-opening performance by former Saturday Night Live cast member Forte. Forte's previous film work was along the much more pedestrian lines of MacGruber, The Watch, Rock of Ages, The Slammin' Salmon and That's My Boy. David is something of the straight man in this situation, but Forte brings surprising soulfulness and craft to the more reactive role.

Director Alexander Payne is a specialist in this kind of film – real life addressed as a merge of quiet comedy and heart-rending drama. In recent years Payne has reaped benefits from his novelist's eye in Sideways, The Descendants and the aforementioned About Schmidt. Unlike those films, Nebraska was not also written by Payne, but Bob Nelson's subtly profound screenplay is right in the filmmaker's wheelhouse. Nebraska is a triumph, and another feather in Payne's hat.

Now if it only starts a Bruce Dern resurgence, life will be golden.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: January 11, 2014

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