For such a simple, straight-forward film, Alexander Payne's latest, NEBRASKA, brushes against many themes without truly grabbing onto one. This is a good thing, since life doesn't work that way; it rarely allows us to tackle one part of our world at a time. More often than not, we have several issues brewing—often boiling over—and we must cope or ignore them as we see fit. This is the case with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who may or may not be losing grip on reality, but more than likely he's just stopped caring, or at least stopped paying close attention.
If you feel the need to pinpoint a theme to NEBRASKA, let me try and assist you. This is the most purely American work that Payne has made since Election, and as with that film (and a couple other of the directors works), he's chosen the Midwest as his setting, trading in the red, white and blue of patriotism for glorious black-and-white. A Nebraska native now living in Billings, Montana, Woody is a man who has trusted everyone, even those that would seek to rip him off or otherwise take advantage of his kindness, and when he gets a sweepstakes envelope in the mail seemingly promising him $1 million, he decides to make the journey to the company's Lincoln headquarters to claim his prize (he doesn't trust the mail to get him his money).
Since he can't drive any longer, he just starts walking and it isn't long before the cops pick him up and call his family to come collect him. His hellcat wife June (June Squibb) sends son David (Will Forte) to pick up the old man and discover why he's even buying this scam designed to sell magazine subscriptions. (Other son Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, works for the local TV news and has just been given his first fill-in anchor spot, a true point of pride for his mother.) After taking stock in his own life—busted relationship, shitty job, no prospect of better in either situation—he offers to drive with his dad to Lincoln so the old man won't get hurt trying to walk the nation's cold and dangerous highways.
Screenwriter Bob Nelson (NEBRASKA is his first produced movie) has both a bleak and sentimental connection to both the heartland and family. Watching Forte in an almost purely dramatic performance (Dern and Squibb get most of the best lines) is remarkable; it's a classic case of thinking you know an actor's limits—and being one of the funniest people on the planet is hardly limiting—and then watching them surpass them by miles. David is the embodiment of patience and practicality, and he's willing to indulge his father's wishes because he wants to bond with the old man a little before his mind goes too far off the rails.
Their travels bring them to the small town in Nebraska where Woody and his large family were born, and this affords the pair a chance to spend a little time reuniting with the Grant family clan, all of whom are fascinated by Woody's good fortune. David tries to explain that he hasn't really won, but they just think the son is trying to protect his father from vultures, who, it turns out, are everywhere. The magnificent Stacy Keach is on hand as Ed Pegram, Woody's former business partner who believes he's owed a little something out of the winnings for money Woody cost him back when they were younger men working together in the car repair business. Ed is the classic big fish in the littlest pond, working what few angles there are to work, and in one of the film's best scenes, he even mildly threatens David to do what's fair.
Kate and Ross show up in Nebraska to make it a true family reunion, and the rest of the film is largely the family going from place to place revisiting old haunts and painful memories (and a few good ones thrown in). Dern really comes to life in these moments. At times, he looks bold and indestructible; other times, he becomes frail and pathetic. In every guise, Woody has a thread of conviction running through him, and it's clearly something David wants to uncover and explore. Woody is resistant; he doesn't get why his kids would care, but he warms to the idea, and there's a brief part of day when the Grant family is driving around having what can only be described as an adventure, and it warms our hearts to see it, as short lived a moment in time as it is.
When I said NEBRASKA was about America, I meant it. There are several dozen examples of gluttonous folks in the town, barflys, greedy SOBs, and stone-faced family remembers sitting around a living room staring at a TV that is never turned off. Have you ever walked into a home where the TV is never off? It depresses the hell out of me, especially when it's just on for the noise. Payne knows that feeling and gives us such a household to underscore what separates Woody from the rest of the Grants. Woody was the one that got away, and even though he only moved to Billings, he's looked at as a city-living outsider—part celebrity, pat cautionary tale. And Dern's performance as this unaffected traveler is perfect.
One of Payne's many strengths has always been casting, not just actors but faces. It's clear that some of the background players are actual locals, and they just look exactly right, to the point where your eyes may drift from the scene at hand to explore the faces surrounding the action. One magnificent face in particular belongs to the lovely older actress Angela McEwan who plays Peg Nagy, editor of the local newspaper and a woman with a strong, early-days connection to Woody. The scene with her and David and a callback moment at the end of the film will elevate you ever so slightly.
In fact, that's how I feel about NEBRASKA overall. Everyone who sees it will take away something slightly different, but I firmly believe that something will make you feel slightly better about the world. The film is a series of lovely small moments, culminating in a slightly bigger moment that is well earned and wholly satisfying. Despite all of its grumpy characterizations and a few abrasive characters, NEBRASKA is still an easy film to fall in love with.