I'm still trying to figure out whether Alexander Payne likes or hates the people he sees in the world around him. Does he feel bad for his characters or does he sneer at their frustrating lives? Does he hate them all or love them for their many flaws?
Are the people in the world around him really this awkward all of the time?
I especially can't tell whether Payne likes — or expects us to like — Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). He's old and gullible, doesn't hear well, doesn't seem to pay attention to what's happening around him and he's constantly drunk. He's such a drunk that he utters an explanation for early beers that I had never heard before:
“Beer ain't drinking.”
Three words is actually pretty good for a response from Woody, who answers his wife Kate's (June Squibb) questions with grunts and his son David's (Will Forte) questions with a yes or a no.
Any more than three words and he's probably pissed off about something, or is under the suspicion he should probably be pissed off about something.
Woody believes a magazine sweepstakes advertisement he received in the mail is a ticket worth a million dollars. The sweepstakes is headquartered in Nebraska; and since no one will take him, Woody keeps attempting to walk to Nebraska.
The rest of the Grants know it's a hoax. Kate and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) simply berate Woody for being an idiot, but David … David's a really nice guy.
He tries to explain to his father how the sweepstakes scams work as simply as he can. When this fails, he decides to take a few days off from his job hawking speakers at an electronics retailer to drive his father to Nebraska.
Their road trip — much like Miles and Jack's in Payne's “Sideways” — has a few unexpected diversions, setbacks and several instances highlighting humanity at it's slimiest.
“Nebraska” is slightly more tender than Payne's other films, primarily because David might be the nicest character I've met in a Payne film. He's a sad guy — much like Miles — but the rather dismal circumstances comprising his life don't seem to sway his generally positive demeanor.
Woody is hardly tolerable and constantly grumpy. He usually seems like he's not only ready to die, but waiting impatiently for Death. He doesn't seem to ever want to talk about much, which isn't much help for the curious David.
Forte and Dern both deliver incredibly awkward, honest performances that seem effortless. Their interactions include quite a bit of silence, but there's never an awkward silence (only awkward interactions). Their conversations feel like those you'd find in a really dysfunctional family.
Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael tell the story in glorious black-and-white with a lot of extremely long takes. There's nothing flashy in the filmmaking, but there's magic in the shot composition. Many shots look like paintings, each capturing a normal moment from the Grant's lives like a meaner Norman Rockwell.
I'm not sure whether or not Payne captures people chasing the American dream or people witnessing its death, but he does it in breathtaking fashion.
“Nebraska” is also a very funny film. Squibb is hilarious as Kate, a woman too honest for her own good and too old to care. I laughed at most everything she said. There are several other moments that I found hysterical but I'm not sure everyone will laugh in those moments. These are the moments that support the “Payne hates us all” theory, the moments you only laugh at because of the self-righteous ways in which characters do and say terrible things.
Much like the humor of Mike Judge, viewers with the least amount of respect for humanity will laugh the hardest.
I believe that Payne, with “Nebraska,” has made a great companion piece for his 2002 comedy “About Schmidt.” Woody's a lot meaner than Warren Schmidt, but they're both sad men who are seeing their best days fade further into the rear view mirror. Neither has much hope left and both are depressed and a little angered by the turns life has taken.
Both are also married to June Squibb, although that might just be a coincidence.
Payne has also proven himself a master of great endings, and “Nebraska” is no exception. Much like the final moments of “Sideways,” the final scene of “Nebraska” is extremely simple and absolutely perfect.
Alexander Payne seems intent on taking us on weird journeys with rough characters that leave us smiling.
I left smiling again after “Nebraska.” I'm still not sure I understand the film yet, but I'm totally sure I can't wait to see it again.
“Nebraska” is rated R for some language.