Director Alexander Payne has delivered a steady stream of noteworthy films during his career, including “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and more recently, “The Descendants.” The Omaha native has set some of his movies in the Cornhusker State and he’s retuned to his home turf with his latest effort – “Nebraska” – a bittersweet story about family.
The movie -- which is filmed entirely in black and white -- begins in Billings, Mont. “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte plays David Grant, a slightly down-on-his-luck home theatre salesman. His girlfriend has broken up with him, and he’s dealing with his aging father whose grip on reality is starting to slip away. Woody, played by veteran actor Bruce Dern, has received some junk mail announcing that he’s a big winner in a magazine subscription sweepstakes. He wants to go to Lincoln, Neb., and claim the prize, and his son decides to go on a road trip with him to satisfy this quest.
The film begins quite slowly. That, plus the theme of an aging parent, might make some audiences start to fear that the movie will become a depressing downer. But as the men stop in the small Nebraskan town where the father used to live, the story shifts into a more interesting gear. They encounter old friends, crazy relatives and a scheming former business associate. When the locals mistakenly start believing that Dern’s character has struck it rich, a lot of maneuvering starts taking place and old jealousies bubble to the surface. It’s a well-nuanced script written by Bob Nelson, whose primary previous credit was as a writer on Magic Johnson’s long-ago talk show.
Director Payne made some fascinating and effective casting choices. Will Forte – best known to some for his MacGruber skits on SNL -- doesn’t seem like a natural choice to play the son. The role requires the balancing of comedy with a lot of tender emotion, but Forte pulls it off. The actor got the part after sending Payne an audition tape that won over the director.
For the role of the father, Payne initially wanted to lure Gene Hackman out of retirement, but after the veteran actor passed, he cast Dern, another Oscar winner.
His part is probably the most challenging, as he has to play a character who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and is often kind of out of it, but who also has fierce determination. Dern accomplishes much with just his eyes, and the occasional brilliant line. His performance earned him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The supporting cast is also wonderful, and includes Stacy Keach as the obnoxious former business partner, and Bob Odenkirk as the Woody’s other son. The real scene stealer, however, is June Squibb as the long-suffering but very protective wife. She delivers one devastating line after another when she arrives in her old hometown and tells everyone – alive or dead – what she really thinks of them.
She may have earned herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Payne also cast a lot of non-professional actors in small supporting roles as various local townspeople, and their faces and expressions are a priceless addition to the movie. The film is also beautifully shot, and the black and white helps to make the images of small towns, fields, and farms look stunning.
“Nebraska” is a thoughtful film which means it probably won’t be a big commercial hit, but it’s a movie that’s touching, often hilarious, and well worth seeing.