"Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."--Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven
I don't know that director Alexander Payne mocks mid-westerners in his films set in the heartland. I mean, I live in the rural mid-west and I recognize a LOT of the characters who populate Payne's films, from Tracy Flick to Woody Grant. I recognize the cultural and economic wasteland he depicts, too. His new film, Nebraska (2013), is ostensibly a comedy, but its stark black and white cinematography turns it into a mournful comedy at best (if that's not an outright oxymoron). This is a film that's laboring under a pall of disillusion and disappointment, set amid a bleak landscape spotted with vultures picking over the remnants of the American dream.
The story here follows Woody Grant, a retiree in Billings, Montana. When we first meet Woody, he's out on the highway, walking to Lincoln, Nebraska. He's soon picked up by a cop and taken to the police station where his son, David, is soon summoned. Woody, it seems, is convinced that he's won a million dollars. He has a letter to prove it. David, rightly, tells his dad that it's an advertising come-on, but Woody is adamant, and soon, he's out on the highway again, much to the consternation of his wife and sons. David decides that the only way to put this foolishness out of his dad's head is to actually take him to Lincoln to claim (or not) his prize. On the way, they spend the weekend in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's old home town, where news of his good fortune brings out the clinging relatives and old "friends," who want to take advantage of his good fortune. Meanwhile, David finds the opportunity to bond with his old man, about whom he discovers he knows very little.
Bruce Dern has been getting the lion's share of the press for Nebraska. Dern is an actor who has never really flirted with stardom, but he's always been around, mostly in character parts. He gets the lead here, and on top of his own prickly screen persona, he's overlayered a sense of dotage. Woody is still proud, and he's still convinced of his own independence, but he's also deluded by his own self-image. When he cajoles his son into drinking with him, he does so by telling him, "Have a drink with your old man! Be somebody!" as if he himself is somebody. Dern sells this, but he's always been good in thankless roles. Here, he gets the spotlight and typically underplays it. It's effective enough.
And yet, it's Will Forte who is at the center of the movie. This is a movie about fathers and sons as much as it's a portrait of the wreck of middle America. Forte has a dead-end job, a relationship that's gone bad, and a parent whose care he must look after. It's a disappointed life and you can see that sense of disappointment in Forte's expressive face. You can see it a bit in the face of Bob Odenkirk's Ross Grant, Woody's other son, though he doesn't have nearly the screen time that Forte has.
June Squibb previously played the wife of Jack Nicholson's Schmidt in About Schmidt, a film Nebraska greatly resembles. She gets the scene-stealing part of Woody's wife in this film, who is ascerbic and resigned to Woody's encroaching senility. She's the character who gets the biggest laughs in the film, both when she reminisces about her wild youth while standing over the graves of her contemporaries, or while she's fending off Woody's greedy relatives. In truth, Kate Grant is a character type that sours me on this film. The foul-mouthed old lady is a cliche and its use here is lazy.
Of the rest? Mostly caricatures and grotesques. Stacy Keach channels a fair amount of menace as Woody's old business partner, while Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray are buffoons as Woody's larcenous cousins. These are the kinds of characters that invite Payne's usual detractors, and they're not wrong in this case, really. Criticizing Payne for this is to defend the ignorant and the venal in the name of some kind of shared humanity that may or may not exist, which hamstrings any artist who is inclined toward grotesquerie. Still, it makes for sour comedy, and the way these characters interact with Woody results in a great deal of humiliation. While humiliation may well be the lot of the common man in the criminal economy of the Great Recession, it's not a fun experience even vicariously at the movies (not for me at least).
The title of this film invites comparison to Bruce Springsteen's great acoustic album of the same name. The setting is the same. The economics of things are the same. Even the black and white photography echoes between the two. Springsteen's record sticks the knife in, though, and twists it a few times in a way that this movie is totally incapable of. Springsteen's grotesques are even more outrageous than Payne's--Charlie Starkweather inviting Caril Fugate to sit in his lap while he's electrocuted, for instance--but Springsteen's grotesques channel something primal, some dark sense of desperation that eludes this film. This film's grotesques seem to exist for their own sake, unconnected to its milieu, perhaps as a global commentary on human nature, though without the rage that would make them sting. In any case, in the future when I hear the title, "Nebraska," I'm probably going to continue to think of Springsteen. Make of that what you will.