Alexander Payne returns with another film that depicts a bunch of generally dislikeable characters but this time he somehow draws you into their story as he takes a dysfunctional family on a road trip across America.
David Grant’s (Will Forte) elderly father Woody (Bruce Dern) is a stubborn, grumpy alcoholic who, having received some junk mail from a publishing company – ‘He memorised it word for word’ – is convinced that he has won a million dollars. He doesn’t really understand the concept of modern marketing nor the puff contained within the correspondence but Woody wants to claim the money in order to buy a new truck and an air compressor. All he has to do is to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, so he sets out on foot to collect his prize. Unfortunately Lincoln is many days’ drive away, so he keeps getting picked up but the police and returned home, but the old man is so determined to go that the long-suffering David eventually agrees to drive him there. They are obliged to stop off at Woody’s home town on the way and his many relatives and former friends are all too delighted to hear of his good fortune.
The premise of Nebraska is rather like David Lynch’s The Straight Story, which similarly features an elderly man on a road trip, although this film should perhaps receive the moniker The Off-the-Straight-and-Narrow Story. The film is primarily about family and community relationships and shows the results of a lifetime of love and facile hatred, monetary desire and lost ambition. Rather like Payne’s Sideways(2004) this is a film about a bunch of protagonists who are, in the main, not particularly likeable, but unlike Sideways, these characters have aspects to their personalities that do elicit sympathy and this makes Nebraska a significantly superior film.
This is a film about social and family issues but it never accentuates any of these to a degree where we feel that it is moralising, a trap that it could easily have fallen into. Payne achieves that rare feat of creating a film that is strangely compassionate despite his protagonists’ very obvious flaws. He combines pathos with dry humour in a way that feels convincing and less contrived than you would imagine. Woody’s children David and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) have the sort of jobs that their father simply doesn’t understand – Ross is a newscaster and David a guy who sells electronic equipment. Woody himself is a true old timer, a long term alcoholic, stubborn to the last, who simply hasn’t moved on with the world. A trip to Mount Rushmore is greeted with Woody’s deadpan declaration that ‘Washington is the only one with any clothes on,’ before they head to his old family town. There, the combination of bogus adulation at his perceived winnings and his friends and relatives’ blatant attempts to obtain some of cash is shockingly believable.
Consistent with the theme of embracing the old and the modern, the film has been shot using black and white film stock and its pacing is languid. At turns moving, upsetting and gently humorous, Nebraska is Payne’s most eminently balanced film to date. Think of it as a multiple character, family crisis version of The Straight Story, without the lawn mower.