AFF Review: Nebraska

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nebraska posterThe territory Alexander Payne explores in his films, that place where melancholy and outlandish human behavior collide, is once again accessed in his latest movie, Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern as an aging alcoholic and Will Forte as his well-meaning son, the film meanders across the plains and valleys of family relationships, nostalgia and regret to reveal moments of sad beauty and awkward humor. 

Falling for a magazine marketing ploy, old Woody Grant (Dern) believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Though his son David (Forte) knows it's simply junk mail, he has nothing better to do -- so he agrees to drive from Montana to Nebraska with his father to collect the money and let him find out the truth for himself. Along the mishap-laden journey, the two men visit Woody's hometown and encounter a cast of family and old friends.

Filmed in black and white in a landscape defined by sparseness and open space, Nebraska is filled with striking moments of stark desolation and piercing loneliness. Woody embodies these traits himself; he is a man who often tried his best over the years, but never shared himself with his wife and sons and mostly devoted himself to drinking instead. As David travels with his estranged father and finds out more about him, he is greeted with surprise after surprise and realizes he never knew much about Woody at all. The more he learns the more confused he becomes about his own life, which he seems to be passively enduring. 

Payne explores similar themes to the ones found in About Schmidt, but in that film he cleverly used an epistolary device to dive into the depths of his main character's head and heart. Unfortunately he has less success with revelation here; Woody remains largely inscrutable and distant, and David functions as a question-asker and chauffeur but doesn't get to do much else. Overshadowed by imagery (lovely as it is), the two main characters never feel fully formed in the ways that many of Payne's previous creations have been. 

The actors in the film both help and hinder its character issues; in his first serious leading film role, Forte often seems uncomfortable with the task of carrying a story like this. His unease becomes especially apparent whenever Bob Odenkirk is onscreen. Playing David's more successful brother Ross, Odenkirk exudes confidence and naturalism that Forte has yet to achieve as an actor.

June Squibb as Woody's wife Kate competently brings energy and humor to the mix, but her role itself unfortunately lacks dimension. Cartoonish minor characters are in fact a consistent problem in Nebraska; small-minded Nebraskans and oafish cousins are placed here and there for comic relief and color, but their presence makes the whole thing feel a little slapdash. Payne doesn't always aim for subtlety in his films, but a lighter touch could have gone a long way here. 

That's not to say Nebraska isn't enjoyable at times and often emotionally touching. The Paramount filled with uproarious laughter more than once during the film's Austin Film Festival screening and people generally seemed to love it. As a Midwesterner myself I appreciated seeing a loving portrayal of America's less flashy people and places, but I found myself wishing Payne would have more consistently embraced the minimalist aesthetic he initially seems to be aiming for.