'Nebraska' more than a worthy successor

TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut 

December 12, 2013


WAUKESHA - Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is more than a worthy successor to the director’s “About Schmidt” (2002), “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendants” (2011). For my money, Payne’s latest picture is the best of the formidable bunch.

There are common denominators. “Nebraska,” like one or more of its antecedents, features a purposeful journey with a pleasurable side trip, the discovery of infidelity, the strengthening of family ties, acts of generosity. If all this makes Payne’s 2013 movie sound derivative, well, the journey motif has existed since the start of storytelling and those last three elements are hardly unusual in real life - and occur in scores of motion pictures besides Payne’s. As for a brief scene in which travelers detour to take in Mount Rushmore, let’s just call that an interesting homage to Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

“Nebraska” concerns Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who thanks to a letter from a Publishers Clearing House sort of operation in the titular state thinks he’s won $1 million. Woody, approximately 80, has long hit the bottle and is fading mentally. While David (Will Forte), the younger of his sons, dismisses the letter as “a total come-on,” Woody’s a believer. And he’s prepared to walk from Billings to Lincoln, if he has to, “to get my million dollars.” Wife Kate (June Squibb) calls him a “dumb cluck,” but gold-hearted David, with a saint’s patience, agrees to take Woody to the sweepstakes operator’s offices.

The two travelers spend most of the movie in fictional Hawthorne, Neb., Woody’s one-horse hometown. There, the would-be millionaire reunites with his comically taciturn relatives and his ex-business partner, a venal villain played superbly by Stacy Keach.

Dern, Forte and Squibb turn in outstanding performances, as well. One who best remembers Dern (as I do) for his brutish but dashing Tom Buchanan opposite Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby will be hard-pressed to recognize Woody’s grizzled, Einstein-coiffed portrayal. But while Dern was well-cast as Tom, he’s an even better Woody, pitiable in spite of the “stubborn as a mule” streak of which Kate speaks. Like his Hawthorne kinsmen, Woody is not loquacious; Dern is able to convey much through simple gestures, like a grim-faced bowing of his head while Squibb as Kate prattles on uncharitably in a cemetery scene.

Forte does more speaking than anybody else on screen. He is not the “Saturday Night Live” funnyman here, but a serious everyman scuffling to get by in life. The average viewer will relate wholeheartedly to this seldom smiling but consistently admirable average Joe, who learns a good deal about his father during their trip.

Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt,” is absolutely hilarious as Woody’s spouse, crude and so hypercritical as to make Don Rickles seem polite. The five principal actors (including Keach and, as the elder Grant son, Bob Odenkirk) offer huge doses of believability and this naturalism extends to lesser players - even to the walk-ons. The generally underplayed acting rings just right, a tribute to director Payne, and is balanced by Bob Nelson’s tight and clever seriocomic script.

Payne opted to film “Nebraska” in black and white, a wonderful choice in that it underscores the sparseness of its Great Plains setting and the old-fashioned atmosphere of small-town life. 

“Nebraska” moves a bit slowly at times and one could make a case that there are extraneous scenes. I’m reminded, though, of a comment one of my English teachers made years ago. Her topic was a certain writer’s good and funny essay, but she might just as easily have been talking about Payne and his latest movie when she said, “He gets off the point every now and then. But so what?”