Nebraska may hit a little too close to home for anybody who has had to watch their parents grow old, but it does so with great understanding and with humor that manages to be both blunt and poignant. In this way it’s typical of its director, Alexander Payne, and in Nebraska Payne reaches the blend of pathos and mannered comedy with which he’s experimented in the last ten years or so. The result is a touching and modestly funny success. Nebraska isn’t as ambitious, at least not in its comedic overtones, as some of Payne’s previous work; I find the absurdist elements of Sideways genuinely amusing and some (not me) consider Election a biting satire (I differ with regards to how truly biting that film is). Whereas Nebraska, I’m willing to bet, only delivers one guaranteed laugh, the film does achieve a certain authenticity about aging, small towns, families, and relationships between and across generations that should elicit some painful, knowing laughter from anybody who has ever had to shout responses to an octogenarian or hear Grandma ramble about old George Diehl’s bad eye.
Much of this authenticity stems from Payne’s comfort in this Great Plains milieu, given that he is from and still lives at least partially in Omaha (admittedly a city compared to the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska, where the film spends most of its time), and from the cast, headed by Bruce Dern, June Squibb, and Will Forte, who construct credibly compassionate portrayals of a distant father slipping further into senility, his fed-up wife who would rather not bother with him or his family, and his son who is frustrated by his dad’s condition but intuits there might not be much more time left, respectively. Nebraska isn’t my favorite Payne film, but it marks the precise endpoint in terms of tone—here, an elegiac one—that I believe he’s after. Rather than pursue the broad comedy and absurdity of his earlier movies, Payne wants, I think, to use his hapless male protagonists as engines to generate prickly subtle humor from discomfort, and to do so with little condescension. It would be selfish to ask Payne to make another bald, if heartfelt, romp like Sideways; the dude isn’t in the movie business for me. Instead I’d commend him for returning to his roots and pursuing his own storytelling truth, even if we might hesitate to examine these parts of our lives and families ourselves.
Part of what Payne seeks to accomplish is offer a certain requiem for a generation and a region of America that are withering away, the generation due to age and the Midwest due to recession. Payne reserves quite a bit of sympathy for Woody Grant (Dern) in spite of the character’s aloofness, alcoholism, and emotional distance from his wife Kate (Squibb) and sons Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Forte). Dern’s Woody is one of the last of a dying, salt-of-the-earth breed. Woody grew up on a farm in Hawthorne in a house his father built with his own two hands, worked in town as a mechanic, and fathered two boys in Billings, Montana, who now work in journalism and in sales, their only connection to that do-it-yourself lifestyle an anecdotal one—though in the Grant family it’s Kate relaying the stories about the trials, tribulations, and minor joys attendant with small-town life. The Grants of both generations live simply and without much of what coastal folks would somewhat haughtily call “ambition,” though you’d be a fool to call David’s desire for a stress-free life something other than ambitious. In watching the film it’s startling how much the fact of where you were born and to whom you were born—in other words, luck—determine your life. To think this determinism sad is a matter of perspective, however.
The film laments that Woody’s cohort won’t be able to pass on their way of life to David’s, and consequently it’s remarkable how clear is the dividing line between the two generations. David and Ross aren’t as handy as their father, that much is obvious from their occupations and their manner of dress. Having grown up in New Jersey and gone to school in Philly and now Chicago, Billings (apologies to my many readers from Billings) might as well be an abandoned train depot, but the difference between David’s Billings and Woody’s Hawthorne are as stark as that between where I and David call home. When David and his dad pull through Hawthorne, ostensibly on their way to Lincoln so Woody can collect a phony Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type prize (with David humoring his old man), there’s a sense that they are outsiders even though there are a few relatives buried in the town cemetery. With the Rust Belt and agrarian economies dwindling especially after the war, plenty packed their bags in search of greener pastures, reducing the population of already-tiny hamlets like Hawthorne. Those that remained were likely more keen to think of themselves as tough for attempting to weather the storm, and as part of that sheltering process closed themselves off to everyone who wasn’t a resident. (Not that cities are accommodating of rural America, either.) Even more microscopically, some of the townspeople arrange themselves according to family lines—Woody’s family turns up their nose at Kate’s upbringing, leaving it up to Kate to lambaste them for their hypocrisy in whispering disapproval while also expecting some of Woody’s (unbeknownst to them) fake winnings due to blood alone.
If Woody can sorta fit in—it’s been a while—it’s David who always stands out, not only because of his comparatively urbane affectations but also because he has fewer wrinkles. Because Hawthorne is filled with old people, their opinions of David and his family were formulated long ago; most of the townspeople call him “Davy,” an unintended diminutive. If David is managing, if only barely, to make ends meet in Billings, he wouldn’t make it in Hawthorne, due to quiet hostility and to the town’s dire financial straits. There are reasons his cousins still in Hawthorne are jobless, which I won’t spoil—it’s the film’s punchline—but there’s also the sense that there are very few to go around, and that if there were, David might not be welcome to them. Underscoring this elegy to the Midwest are Nebraska‘s aesthetic flourishes—the grizzled stubble on the faces of old men, the intentionally stark black-and-white palate, the boarded windows of Main Street. As Woody and David reach their destination, the film later offers a shot of Lincoln’s main thoroughfare—it’s cleaner and has a few more chains, but lurking as subtext is the ominous potential that the downturn might snatch soon what is by comparison a metropolis. As a frequent visitor to Columbus, Ohio, where my family’s from, I can confirm this unfortunate possibility.
The most potent symbol for the death of small-town America is Woody, of course, and Payne doesn’t shy away from the man’s flaws nor from the scary but darkly funny prospect of getting up there in years. Dern is fascinating in the role, which is an accomplishment considering about half of his dialogue consists of asking “WHAHHH?” Our first impression of Woody is, with good evidence, that of a senile old man, but Dern infuses Woody with life and history. What acquaintances from Woody’s past fill in confirms what we suspect Woody has purposefully hidden behind his gruff exterior and his alcoholism, and what Woody probably cannot articulate now even if he wanted to—his generosity. Everyone’s description of Woody is of a man generous to a fault, which supplies some added, and cruel, motivation for a piece of Woody’s money. David hasn’t heard much of this before because of his father’s character and because his mom expends most of her words on vulgarly dismissing Woody and everybody else she knows—Squibb’s is the juiciest role by far—but the film’s generosity with Woody, and David’s generosity in spending time with his dad and biting his lip, reveals to David the angel on his father’s shoulder alongside the devil on the other. Nebraska admires Woody’s traits while simultaneously recognizing how these traits have done him more harm than good.
More harm than good—that’s pretty much the norm for Payne’s male leads, and in Nebraska Woody and David combine to fill these shoes, bringing the id and the ego of the Payne protagonist respectively. While Dern is excellent, as noted, it’s actually Forte who is the revelation with a more difficult part. As the guy who realizes his best course of action is to placate his dad rather than get fussy and talk him down from his delusions, Forte has to spend most of his time in the background, patiently, offering a nice word here or a tired head nod or confused eyebrow cock there, all while reining in what he’d exasperatingly like to say but understands would be of no use. In one scene, a handful of other men from the extended Grant clan in Hawthorne crowd in front of a TV to watch a college football game. Payne’s camera sits still behind the TV set, watching the absolute lack of action—the one burst of terse dialogue discusses Woody’s brother’s bad foot—and Forte, though he’s off to the side of the frame, is always noticeable, the way he sits, has his hands folded, and looks forward distinguish him from the rest of his family. Payne is often accused of condescending to his characters—the word “condescend” has popped up in so many reviews—but he doesn’t condescend to David for exactly these reasons. David stands out, but only does so because he is trying so damned hard to help his dad.
Nor does Payne condescend towards Woody or towards the small-town way of life. Woody and the people of Hawthorne make for an easy target, sure, but instead of mining these people specifically for laughs, he mines their manners. Critical to this is that only Woody actually believes he’s won any money, and Woody’s not totally with it anymore. Woody’s family or old associates wouldn’t believe it either; Kate and his sons know it’s a ruse, and the fault of those in Hawthorne isn’t gullibility for a dumb sweepstakes promotion but earnestness in taking what they hear for face value, that, as I mentioned, is revealed to be hypocritical. Only David’s two dimwitted cousins are objects of scorn, but again, the movie will tell you why. Instead, Payne mostly fills his canvas with people who live unluckily, but who on the whole live well. The tone is less of condescension than of awe.