Review: 'Nebraska'

(Three stars)

It's never too late to play a few grace notes. With Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," this proves true for two septuagenarians: addled heartland grump Woodrow "Woody" Grant and the Hollywood royal who plays him, Bruce Dern.

Nebraska native Payne usually co-writes his films, and though here he directs a script by Bob Nelson, you wouldn't know it if not for the credits. "Nebraska" is right in Payne's wheelhouse of American quirk. It's a relatively simple story of how Woody has gotten it into his head that he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes and, though his son David (Will Forte, late of "Saturday Night Live") knows his father is a victim of junk-mail marketing, he's also attentive enough to realize "The guy just needs something to live for."

And so Woody and David hit the road from Billings, Mont., to Omaha, Neb. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael dress it up in black-and-white photography, but there's little fresh about another road movie that allows son to get to know father and maybe a bit of the reverse. We've all seen this sort of thing before. And "Nebraska" does itself few favors with tired shticks, like deadpan gags around local yokels, and the characterization of Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb of "About Schmidt") as a harridan who, at one point, "shocks" the audience by talking dirty.

Payne connects in the quieter, more observational moments, as when the camera stays with Woody, slumped on his living-room sofa, while David and Kate discuss him in the background as if he weren't even there ("You know what I'd do with a million dollars?" asks Kate. "I'd put him in a home!").

When "Nebraska" sticks with the elegiac, the mournful and the sliver-of-hopeful, it lets us know it cares and isn't just another glib, condescending, Coen-esque comedy of "morons" (Woody's insult of choice). A visit to the hollowed-out erstwhile family homestead effortlessly haunts, tapping into the universal horror of life's swift entropy. Though Woody and David are inevitably careening toward disappointment, small victories are just as inevitably in store.

Dern finely delineates Woody as someone who's described as always having been confused but capable of moments of cruel lucidity: cruel to himself (in his disappointed lack of accomplishment) and cruel to those around him. He's a persistently annoyed, insistently selfish alcoholic, but Dern gives him a pitiable humanity that makes it impossible to write him off.

Meanwhile, Forte's essential decency shines through his gentle, skillfully reactive turn.

Payne knows of what he depicts, clearly, and that audiences can appreciate this "little change of scenery" at least as much as Woody. If you can grin and bear eye-rolling situations like Stacy Keach giving a musty karaoke performance of "In the Ghetto," there's found poetry in the film's slow builds of respect and its deeply understated emotional climax: a father and son crossing past each other as they switch seats.

Rated R for some language. One hour, 55 minutes.


There are no comments yet. Please share yours below.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Why contentious local politics? More examples from ADU at Council
By Douglas Moran | 49 comments | 2,015 views

Food Party! 420
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,318 views

What Are Your Gifts that Must Be Shared?
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 486 views


Best Of Palo Alto ballot is here

It's time to decide what local business is worthy of the title "Best Of Palo Alto" — and you get to decide! Cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.