For me personally, Alexander Payne’s latest Nebraska is one of those movies that does everything right; with great performances, a good script, a simple yet charming story, etc. But a good movie is not just simply a sum of all its parts; a good movie strives to create a bigger sum and achieve something more. Don’t get me wrong, all of the individual aspects for achieving that certain something was present in Nebraska. Bruce Dern and June Squibb give some amazing, and hilarious, performances. It is nice to see Will Forte taken out of his Saturday Night Live setting and in a more serious role. Bob Odenkirk was a surprise for me, but a good one. The cinematography perfectly captures that bland beauty that is so prominent of the West and the black and white worked well with the story. All in all, the film achieves what it wanted to achieve. However, my enjoyment of Nebraska was very surface level. All of its individual parts were wonderfully executed, but its failure to deliver something a little deeper is what kept it from truly making an impact on me as I left the theater.
At first, the simple story line might throw somebody off and raise questions such as “this is really Best Picture nomination worthy?” I was wary at first as well. After all, the story is about a senile old man, Woody (Dern), who claims that he won a millions dollars (he obviously didn’t) and will do whatever it takes to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. Pretty simple and you don’t have to worry about any plot twists. The movie isn’t really about the million dollars though; it’s about Woody and his bizarre yet relatable family. Woody’s son David (Forte) finally gives in and offers to drive Woody to Nebraska, hopeful that the trip will be exactly what his father needs to return to normalcy. It’s never that simple, though, and the two get hung up in Woody’s hometown for a very weird and unorthodox family reunion.
With such a simple premise, it’s the characters that become the focus of the film. Bruce Dern is a grouchy and crazy curmudgeon but brings a necessary likability to Woody. It’s June Squibb who is the firecracker out of the bland bunch. She brings some much needed comedic relief to the table and steals every scene that she’s in. This was a nice change of pace for Forte as David, but unfortunately I thought his character was the weakest. He just seemed so one dimensionally sad the whole time. David and Woody’s relationship is the obvious focus of the film but it was never really clear to me that it ever got better between the two. It is clear that their relationship has been dysfunctional since David was a child with Woody’s alcoholism being a huge reason as to why the two haven’t been on the best of terms for his entire life. Woody seems to be too loony to even realize this, however, and this conflict is never entirely addressed by the film’s end. Of course, Nebraska is a film about family so one would expect their relationship to be mended at some point in the film, but again, there was never clearly a point in the movie where the two meet an understanding. However, they still seem to move forward. This was definitely one of the biggest flaws of the movie for me.
As outrageous and insane as all the characters in Nebraska are, that’s exactly what they come off as; just characters. Payne strives to present this slice of the Midwest in pure factuality and he puts us in the setting very effectively through some truly beautiful shots of the abandoned-looking streets and stores of this small Nebraskan town. These bizarre characters only seem to counteract this “reality” that Payne presents. A particular scene in which several very bland and melancholy old men packed in a small living room engaging only in some very limited small talk as they face straight forward at the television comes to mind. Although this scene was very comedic in its portrayal of a very depressing family situation, I doubt a family can really be that depressing (although I’m sure someone could prove me wrong). Not to say that these characters weren’t enjoyable to watch, because they were. They just gave a feeling of separation of the story from the reality that Payne was trying to portray.
I’m still confused as to what my exact feelings for Nebraska are, although it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it. Usually after an amount of time has passed, I’m able to declare whether this movie was absolutely amazing or not so amazing and why, but I’m still kind of stuck on this one. Obviously my voice is a very small one and I’m sure the points I brought up about why I didn’t think this was the best film in the world can be disputed. Critics love this movie and it’s definitely got a good amount of attention by the Academy and such. I suppose my blasé reaction towards the movie says something in itself, though. The film itself is full of some really great qualities that I love, but what I thought it lacked was clarity in what these qualities were working to exactly say.