Staggering along under a weight of folksiness, much like its old-guy hero is staggering along on his beat up legs, Alexander Payne’s latest movie is sweet and wry but let’s not all get too excited. The film certainly doesn’t.
Bruce Dern is the old guy, an amnesiac oldster with a “beer isn’t drinking” drink problem who reckons he’s won some obviously fake mailout sweepstake – “you could already have won a million dollars” kind of thing. With nothing else to live for, and getting under the feet of his wife (June Squibb), Woody decides he’s going to get to Nebraska any old how to pick up his winnings, even if it means walking.
Enter Woody’s second son (Will Forte), a milquetoasty soft touch who decides, eventually, after harsher counsel from both his mother and older brother (Bob Odenkirk), to take the old guy to Nebraska where the winnings will most certainly not be waiting to be collected, rub the old guys face in the fact, and then be done with it once and for all.
The stage is set for a road movie that also functions as a rite of passage – the child becomes the father of the man and grows a pair, while the old guy slowly, through what may be entirely bogus mental confusion, slowly comes to realise that this trip is his last hurrah.
While this is happening, Payne lays on the full Frank Capra – a film shot in black and white like some dustbowl photograph by Andrea Lange, a host of faces from the back end of the casting catalogue, a down-home soundtrack of country fiddle and lonesome piano, long shots of the highway, the road to nowhere.
Add to these sobering stylistic choice the fact that the film is a good 20 minutes too long and if you’re anything like me you’ll be just starting to get restless by the time the end starts pulling into view.
I feel terrible even saying this, but there it is, I got a bit “meh” somewhere on this journey, even though I was particularly enjoying Dern’s sly old dog performance as the perhaps not so befuddled oldster, June Squibb as the wife obsessed with who wanted to get into her pants when she was 50 years younger, Stacy Keach as a friend from Woody’s hometown who’s not quite the friend at all. And in particular Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as Woody’s thick-as-pigshit odious snickering nephews sharing about one half of either Beavis or Butt-head’s brain.
Squibb gets the best lines, and spits them out with style, which is absolutely as it should be since the film is so much about the sheer weird inadequacy of men unless they have a project on the go – entire rooms full of guys who can only break away from the TV when the talk turns to cars.
Because Payne made About Schmidt, which was about an old guy, and Sideways, which was about a road trip, it’s tempting to describe Nebraska as being a hybrid of the two. But it isn’t. Though it does share the elegiac tone – for its characters and the USA – of those films, that’s something Payne is always interested in. Even in films, such as Election or The Descendants, which swim in more youthful waters.
© Steve Morrissey 2013