Director Alexander Payne has made a successful career out of male characters who are considerably less than heroic. Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and even George Clooney in The Descendantsare not your everyday Golden Guys, but none of them are quite as skanky and half witted as Bruce Dern’s Woody, a grumpy opinionated and sozzled old man, who is determined to get to Nebraska to claim his $1 million prize. Which doesn’t exist, of course.
It’s a scam. Everyone knows, except Woody but nothing will stop him, so his long suffering son, David, tries to humour him by agreeing to escort him there personally (it’s that, or having to collect off whichever street he’s got to, trying to make his own way there by foot).
Meanwhile old friends and former neighbours start seeing dollar signs in their eyes. If Woody is so convinced he’s won $1 million, maybe he has. And if he can’t remember anything, then why not tell him he owes them money – he’ll never know one way or the other, right? It’s a less-than-rosy view of the world espoused by Payne, as father and son make their way across the Midwestern emptiness of Nebraska, the state after which the film is named (and which is Payne’s home state). David is one bright spot in a bleak human landscape, a decent guy who’s never amounted to much (not like his successful brother) and is the object of his father’s and mother’s derision. Yet he’s the one who stands by his father when most of us would have abandoned him as a hopeless case, and tries to make the best of the appalling relatives with whom the family is lumbered.
The film is a mixture of bleakness and optimism. Shot in black and white, and with Bruce Dern cast as Woody, it’s a deliberate throwback to the 1970s, when a film like The Last Picture Show focused on small town America gradually disintegrating into dusty obscurity. Woody, his friends, family and neighbours are condemned to live in towns that time forgot – or ignores at least – and where you might as well convince yourself you’ve won a fortune. It’s one way to pass the time and amuse other people. It’s also a picture of a marriage which has gone on for too long in a muddy sea of insults and negativity.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and is less fun than Payne’s earlier films, but it is an original and fascinating addition to his CV.
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