The main reason to catch Nebraska is for Bruce Dern and his convincing bitter codger, writes Tara Brady
Film Title: Nebraska
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Running Time: 114 min
If you sat through this elegant, well-acted comic drama without glimpsing the credits, you would not be altogether surprised to discover that Alexander Payne was the director. Like Payne’s About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents, Nebraska follows disappointed Americans as they travel about underexploited corners of the Union.
Though taken from an original script by Bob Nelson, the result could hardly be more characteristic of Payne if his name were watermarked into every frame. Still, he does what he does so well one can’t much object to him doing it so often.
It may be set in the present, but Nebraska (named for Mr Payne’s home state) feels as much a tribute to vanished America as did The Last Picture Show. Like Peter Bogdanovich, Payne shoots in a crisp monochrome that allows faces to take on the quality of mid-period John Ford landscapes. And what a face the film-makers have.
The weather-beaten, drained Bruce Dern is reliably nuanced as Woody, an older man who receives one of those disingenuous form letters promising a million dollars and insists upon journeying to the publishing company to grasp his fortune. At first, David (Will Forte), Woody’s sat-upon son, resists, but eventually he gives in to the inevitable and agrees to drive the confused old codger across country.
There is much that is corny and a little that is dubious in Nebraska. If Payne had set the film in New York City, one wonders, would so many characters be taken in by Dern’s unreliable news? The ultimate, much telegraphed payoff – in which David does something that acknowledges his love for crabby dad – reeks strongly of screenwriting templates.
None of this much matters. The tributes to a vanishing romantic Americana are endlessly seductive, and the more absurd comic set-pieces remind us that, as well as an awards darling, Payne was one of the brains behind I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry.
But the main reason to catch Nebraska is for Dern. Managing an even more convincing bitter codger than Jack Nicholson gave us in About Schmidt, the long-faced legend – who won best actor at Cannes for his performance – makes a good case for staging a contemporary King Lear in the American midwest. He sure has the hair for it.