^ losing it or winning it — or both ? Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

—- —- —-

In his films, Alexander Payne has shown strong predilection for men somewhere
north of their prime, still lost and looking for grounding. The roots of which
took hold with “About Schmidt” (2002), got whacky and whiney in “Sideways”
(2004) and then moved out to the island of Hawaii with a more dour tone in “The
Descendants” (2011). Payne’s latest, “Nebraska” maybe be the ultimate in mature
male malfunction — in a sweet elegiacal way — ties back to “Schmidt” too, as
its protagonist, Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, has a dry, fly-away
comb-over reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s hair-challenged Schmidt;
ironically, in both films, the men’s wives were played by the same actress,
June Squibb, who practically upends and nearly steals the film as it sails into
the third act.

The setup’s pretty rudimentary : the aging Woody insists on getting from
Montana to the State that’s the film’s title, because he’s received a note by
mail informing him he’s won a million dollars. We’ve all gotten that Publisher
Clearing House nonsense before, and we all know it’s bunk, but Woody, frail and
vacant, seems to be around the bend faculty-wise,;whether it’s depression, too
much sauce over the years or dementia (the film never floats such possibility,
though it would have gone the furthest in selling the rhyme behind Woody’s
insipid quest). As a result, Woody can’t drive, so his forty-year-old son, David (Will Forte),
stuck in a dead end job at a Best Buy knock-off and dumped by his Rubens-esque
girlfriend, agrees to take on road trip duties. These he passively views as an opportunity
to take stock and an odd chance to give his Dad some sense of closure. It adds to the
calm turmoil, too, that Woody was never a present father or husband, and drank too much;
and still does.

Woody and David drift along fairly innocuously until a bar brawl derails them
and, against Woody’s wishes, they make a side excursion to Woody’s old hometown,
where the streets have a depressed, 1950s sheen and Woody’s tangential kin are
little more than couch-potato rubes. Adding to the none-too-friendly homecoming,
Stacy Keach slithers in as Woody’s sleazy old auto shop partner; and the million
dollar prize becomes big news and a big joke in the sleepy cornfield town. As
push comes to shove and revelations hang on the horizon, the rest of Woody’s
Montana clan roll in. For all the hoopla, you’d think Woody held a contested
winning lottery ticket.

Dern’s gaunt frame holds the film up firmly even though the role is fairly
two-note. More is asked of Forte in a thankless bit as the rational son caught
up in the nonsensical senior moment, while SNLer, Bob Odenkirk fills the juicier
part of the cantankerous older brother who wants to be news anchor.

Payne boldly shot the film in muted black and white. The result is a gentle,
grainy dimming that mirrors Woody’s wayward cognizance. It’s a quiet
accomplishment, too, that Dern and Payne have notched. The pair have collectively
made an American asshole sympathetic and full bodied. Part of that’s done by
surrounding Woody with even deeper steeped miscreants. It may be a cheap trick,
but sadly there’s no sleight of hand in the truth.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies