Cinema Review: Nebraska | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, August 3rd, 2020  


Studio: Paramount
Directed by Alexander Payne

Nov 22, 2013 Web Exclusive
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We meet Woody (Bruce Dern) stumbling down a Montana highway. He’s going to Lincoln, Nebraska where he intends to collect what he believes to be a winning prize on a million-dollar sweepstakes. Woody’s wife Kate sees this as proof the old man is losing his mind. But after Woody persists, his good-natured son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him the 750 miles. En route, they hole up with relatives in Hawthorne, Nebraska, a small town stuck in the 1950s. It’s where Woody spent the first twentysomething years of his life and became known as a drunk. Now that he’s back, word has gotten out he’s “won” a million dollars, making him a celebrity in the town. Out for dinner, an old friend singles him out in front of the entire restaurant. He’s implored to stand up. He does, and as everyone erupts in applause, there’s a sense this might be a high point in the old man’s life.

Though Nebraska is set in what Hollywood might call a flyover state, director Alexander Payne isn’t so dismissive. The Omaha native has made a career observing America’s uncelebrated: a high school teacher in Election, an over-the-hill widower in About Schmidt, a middle-aged wine snob in Sideways. Here, Payne stocks a not-so-glamorous small town with equally plain characters, and yet they are offered more depth, dignity, and affection than in any of his prior work. Sure, not every character transcends superficiality, and we’re meant to chuckle at certain quirks, like when the town newspaper—a one-person operation headed by an old girlfriend of Woody’s—dispatches a ten-year-old to photograph the new millionaire. But when David tells her the truth about the prize, she doesn’t laugh or roll her eyes—she offers a knowing smile, saying she’ll print a little article about Woody stopping by anyway.

This subtle warmth and heart is central to Bob Nelson’s screenplay, which subverts its chipped-paint façade with family-specific dynamics and acute character details. Sometimes it just plays on stereotypes, finding in the cantankerous Kate—a pitch-perfect June Squibb—an impossible depth beneath her insults. But the film’s richest scenes simply involve David taking in old stories of Woody, getting to know a man who never wanted to be known. It’s a surprising performance from Forte, tasked with much of the heavy lifting opposite a tight-lipped Dern, who has never been better. His stern, no-nonsense demeanor gives credence to a man dulled by age and booze. His shoulders are constantly slumped, weighed down by a lifetime of disappointment. That he never got to own a brand new pickup truck, that he had little to offer as a father. For the old man, the prize isn’t about the million dollars—it’s his chance to prove to himself that he matters. But as he’s showered with applause in the restaurant, it doesn’t matter that the prize is phony. One way or another, he deserves it.

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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