From it's earliest sights and sounds - a vintage Paramount logo, black and white photography and a score rich with fiddle, dobro and other implements of Americana - Alexander Payne's Nebraska would seem to announce itself as something aiming for timelessness. Something big and American and perhaps even profound. Hence, the broad, emblem of a title, placing us in the proverbial heartland of the country. Bruce Springsteen did much the same in 1982 with an album bearing the state's name as its title, whose fairly bleak cycle of songs also tried to get at the simple heart of the country by way of some it less fortunate constituents. Of course, Payne has a bit more claim to the title and state as a Nebraska native.
To his credit, Payne goes after his big theme -whatever that might be - in a small way. As usual, he grounds his work in very credible detail. Payne has taken us on the road before, in About Schmidt and Sideways. The director has a relatively keen eye for the things to be seen from roads commonly plied: the copses of directional signs along the highway; the particular detritus of vehicles and other discarded possessions strewn about properties; the pathos of small town storefronts that have lost their identities; signs blinking after a vitality their establishments can no longer provide.
At the outset of Nebraska we see an elderly man shuffling along the shoulder of the interstate in Billings, Montana. This stubborn old coot is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), whose long, thin, unkempt hair is a kind of flag for both the character and the film (Dern in profile as if facing a stiff head wind serves as the film's main promotional image). Woody has received notification from Lincoln, Nebraska that he has been awarded one million dollars and need only report to the Midwestern capital to collect his fortune. This, of course, is a magazine come-on, as his all in his immediate family try to explain. But Woody will have none of it. It becomes clear in Mr. Payne's latest feature that the old man will make it to Lincoln, or die trying, demonstrating the sort of insuperable stubbornness that only the very young or very old tend to muster.
It's the sort of stubbornness that reminds one of Shakespeare's age of second childishness, one of the seven delineated by Jaques in As You Like It. However, if Nebraska has a moral, it's that this particular old man is at least due his respect and perhaps even his indulgence ; he's owed more than the simple condescension one might bestow on an intractable child. Unfortunately, that nice little parable is placed within a very large framework in which it rattles around in somewhat hollow fashion. A bit like one of those sad small down businesses on which the camera is trained in Nebraska that advertises something bigger than it can deliver.
Unusually, Alexander Payne directs in Nebraska a film not drawn from one of his own scripts. Bob Nelson, another native of the American Plains (South Dakota), does the honors. Nelson, writing his first film after limited and sporadic television work, has at least achieved the Panynesque. The director is clearly drawn to stories of men out of sorts, facing mortality, middle age, or something equally as daunting. And there will be awkwardness. Payne has demonstrated something approaching a fetish for scenes and digressions in which his characters are undressed one way or another. This is not the typical sort of Hollywood gimmick, but it becomes a gimmick none-the-less.
Nebraska's odyssey takes place when younger son, David (Will Forte), decides the only way to shut up the old man and keep him from wandering off is to indulge him with a road trip to Lincoln. While the film is heading down the interstate toward its big goal, digressions occur, literal and figurative.
Woody's penchant to roam, not to mention his simmering alcoholism, take him to a small town bar along the way. In returning to the dark motel room he shares with David, he falls and badly cuts his head. While being stitched up at the local hospital, Woody realizes that he's lost his dental plate. Typical of Nebraska's implausibilities and feeble jokeiness, father and son find the false teeth on the railroad tracks the next day and manage to temporarily fool the other in turn that they're not Woody's teeth. Droll stuff.
The film's major detour is to Woody Grant's Nebraska hometown, long enough for family to gather and most everyone to lay claim to Woody's expected windfall. After wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join Woody and David, the family takes a drive. Returning from the farm house in which Woody was born and raised, the boys decide to steal back the air compressor that their father lent to Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach, adding another creep to his late career collection of such roles) back in the 1970s. The heist is completed without a hitch and the boys have their moment...until the parents realize that barn just burgled actually belongs not to the bastard Pegram, but to a couple who just happen to be the salt of the Earth. When the sons reverse field to return the compressor, you just know that the owners will show up. And so they do. This orchestrated awkwardness does at least play out with a minimum of drama, but still comes off as a superfluous episode.
Of course, even the most static of lives has its drolleries. So too well rendered stories. Payne's own writing in Sideways is an example of a script in which even the comical extremes seem organic to story and find a balance with its film's more serious interludes and themes. Mr. Nelson's script doesn't begin to approach the grace to juggle its diverse elements.
Unfortunately, the casting of Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk as the Grant brothers is consistent with a film that gets lost between its facile if deadpan jokeiness and the straining after something deeper. Forte does have a defeated air about him and seems to tap into the gravity of Bruce Dern's performance as the story moves slowly along. But neither Forte nor Odenkirk demonstrate much ability to express any significant depth or range or emotion. Forte is respectable enough, but his is largely a one-note performance throughout.
Payne and Nelson clearly know the world in which Nebraska operates. There are many details of the roadways, moribund small towns and lives in stasis, all photographed quite competently in black in white by veteran cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, that are gotten right. Much of what we see in Nebraska looks true. There is Payne's usual attention to mise en scene, to detail, but to what end? Not nearly enough done by writer or director show the ability or conviction to really delve into these lives. That would be more exacting work for filmmaker and audience alike.
Among the actors considered for the role of David Grant were Brian Cranston, Casey Affleck, Paul Rudd and Matthew Modine. If you've seen Nebraska, it might be hard to imagine any of those actors in the role, particularly Cranston and Affleck. It might be hard to imagine, because Nebraska would have been a very different film with the likes of Brian Cranson or Casey Affleck alongside its star, probably a more substantial one. But Alexander Payne does deserve credit for getting Bruce Dern back to center stage in a feature film.
Dern is very good as the determined Woody Grant, all the more so for the amount of acting he does without (or thanks to) a lack of dialog. He frequently has the look of a man stunned, his face like his hair bearing evidence of some blast, whether a strong wind or just a bracing gander into the great beyond. This quiet assurance of performance is thrown into relief on those occasions when he is roused to some greater volume of emotion. We see examples of this when Woody is shamed by Ed Pegram, reminding him of youthful transgressions with a "half breed." On more than one occasion, Woody is also stirred by David 's questioning him about the past, at which moments Dern's face compresses into an expression of impatient incredulity.
Woody's lack of nostalgia is one bit of insight that Nelson's script would seem to offer. The general truth might be that the aged are quite prone to delve more into their long-term memories than the less-satisfying (or plain absent) stuff of the recent past. But some older men and women haven't the least desire to look back, whether due to the avoidance of some trauma or mere exhaustion.
While he shows no particular interest in his own history, Woody's sons do persuade him to make that visit to his childhood home. It's a farm house, now derelict. Nebraska finds some of is most powerful moments during this visit, as the family walks around the abandoned house. There's little or no dialog as this occurs. We simply watch the taciturn old man move about the place full of childhood memories and imagine what he must be feeling and thinking. But when he reaches the bedroom of his parents, Woody notes that his mere presence in the room as a child would result in a whipping. At this point Nelson's script reaches a step too far. "I guess nobody's going to whip me now, " says Woody with finality. Both the statement and the aggrieved edge in the old man's voice are completely at odds with everything that has preceded the moment. The writer and director are striving for poetry, but cover whatever might be present in the scene with hack prose and direction.
As with Mr. Payne's previous feature, The Descendant's, Nebraska tries to grapple with large subjects before taking a turn toward the pat and satisfying by film's end. Of course, there's no million dollars waiting for Woody in Lincoln, just a t-shirt and a tacky baseball cap. But the son has other ideas before they return to Billings. There is indeed a kind of parable of a son granting his aged father a dignity usually denied him. All well and good, much as this parable is built upon a feeble structure of implausibilities. But what of all the pathos that preceded it, the sadness of the dead-end towns and lives? Was all of that pathos mined, all of those stark black and white image provided simply to lend an appearance of substance to an inner story that wouldn't be so out of place on the Hallmark channel?
Before we grant this film and this director a lofty status that neither deserve, we should bear in mind that this sort of thing is being done much better elsewhere. This sort of thing being narrative filmmaking about relatively average Americans, that sacrifice nothing in story for the sake of getting at inner truths. We need look no farther than the likes of Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Winter's Bone), or Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud), to find writer/directors who demonstrate a superior conviction of storytelling and clarity of purpose. Mr. Nichol's 2013 release, Mud, is a film both entertaining and more substantial than Nebraska, one that requires no vintage studio logos or black and white photography to signal its timelessness and depth.
Nebraska fails without the burden of comparison to better films of less notoriety. It fails despite the skill of Bruce Dern. Alexander Payne's feeling for his home region and fondness for the road are obvious enough. And his funneling of production money into that part of the country is admirable. But for all his traveling from place to place, film to film, he remains a tourist at heart.