Alexander Payne’s lovely Nebraska is a bitter-sweet comedy about aging, and senescence, and the decline of small-town America. Above all, though, it’s a film about family, and how we hang together, mostly, even when we want to strangle each other, and it’s about family secrets, and low family meanness. And marriages, and families of habit and convenience. But yes also love.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a grumpy, alcoholic and uncommunicative old codger living in Billings, Montana, a long way away from his extended family in a small town, Hawthorne, in Nebraska. Woody gets one of those promotional mailers saying ‘you have won a million dollars!’ Not really; you’ve won if you have the winning sweepstakes number or something–they’re selling magazine subscriptions. In other words, he actually hasn’t won a nickel, and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and his sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte) aren’t fooled for a second. But Woody can’t get his new-found fortune out of his head, and keeps running away, gimping determinedly down the highway, intent on walking from Billings to Omaha to claim his prize. He never gets more than a few hundred feet down the road, but he also won’t quit doing it-escaping, heading off. He can’t drive anymore, and he can barely walk, and so David resigns himself to taking a few days off work (he works at an electronics store, selling speakers), and driving his Dad to Omaha. But Dad leaves their motel room to find some booze, hurts himself, and David decides they should lay up for a weekend in Hawthorne. The bulk of the movie is about that visit, a kind of impromptu family reunion.
The larger Grant clan is a quietly bovine bunch, with a multitude of sofas and easy chairs aligned so as best to communally view the television. The only two who seem interested in talking are David’s two cousins, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), whose only conversation seems to involve mocking David’s driving. But the entire down of Hawthorne knows about Woody, and this ‘fortune’ he’s inherited, especially self-styled leading citizen Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who thinks he’s entitled to some of it. In fact, Hawthorne’s vultures start circling around that million bucks, including Bart and Cole and other family members.
Although the movie scored a 91 on Rottentomatoes.com, many of the critics I read focused on this, the low greediness of family and friends, as evidence of Payne’s supposed misanthropy. I don’t see it. The fading and seedy town of Hawthorne isn’t uniformly grasping or greedy, or mocking and cruel either. The local newspaper’s proprietor, Peg Nagy (a splendid Angela McEwan), who David learns to his shock was once his father’s girlfriend, proves herself both kind and sensible, a woman who thinks well of her former romantic rival, Kate, and is nothing but grateful for the way her own life turned out. Other family members are similarly supportive and gracious, and the film doesn’t even knock a group of elderly farmers gathered to sing karaoke; some of them have surprisingly good voices. Keach’s Pegram is a jerk, to be sure, but he’s just one jerk, though he does gather a bit of a following. He also gets his comeuppance, and that’s a sweet moment in the film.
These people aren’t saints and they aren’t evil. But it’s a small town; everyone knows everyone, for good and ill. There’s a lovely scene in a local cemetery, where Kate walks among the tombstones and offers short, two sentence commentaries on the deceased. Kate’s eye is as sharp as her tongue, and she doesn’t mince words about anyone, but she’s happy enough to praise those few of her former neighbors who she thinks deserves it. It’s a funny scene, but it’s not mean-spirited. Just honest. One gravestone is treated thus: “she was killed at nineteen in a car wreck. My goodness, she was a whore. Worst slut in town.” But of another family, she says “nothing bad to say about them. Salt of the earth.”
June Squibb is amazing in this film. I’ve heard talk that Bruce Dern may be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and I can see it–he’s tremendously good in this film. But if he is nominated, June Squibb should be nominated for Supporting Actress. In scene after scene, her exasperation over her sadly deluded husband spills over, and she can be acidly frank in dissecting his short-comings. But when his family starts demanding a cut of his (non-existent) fortune, she defends Woody like a lioness, and when he lays, near death, in a hospital bed, her brief but tender kiss is a benediction. It’s a superbly written role, and Squibb fills it out to perfection.
I loved Phedon Pappamichael’s richly evocative black and white cinematography, and the spare beauty of Mark Orton’s score; mostly solo acoustic guitar with some soft percussion, the occasional woodwinds or horns. I shouldn’t forget Forte and Odenkirk’s performances as Woody’s sons, especially Forte, who is plausibly gentle and supportive of a father who we aren’t entirely sure deserves it. I saw the movie with a friend, in maybe four other people in the house, but i laughed a lot out loud, and heard other laughs as well. It’s a beautiful little film. Go see it.