Movie Review: Nebraska

NEBRASKAA few times a year I go to what I like to call a “senior discount showing.”  One of those movies where I’ll go to an 11 am screening of something, and the theater will still be 3/4ths sold out, and I’ll be the youngest person there by thirty years.  I guess it’s because old people don’t want those disrespectful youths being rowdy with all their cell phones and skateboards and sticking their tongues out and whatnot.  I’m sure the 8 pm screening of an Alexander Payne film is like an orgy of people yelling, blasting rap music, and throwing eggs at the theater screen.  Kids just can’t handle the nuanced dialogue and deep character development, it turns them into animals!  That’s not to say that the 11 am screening is without its annoyances.  As one of the people who doesn’t need a hearing aid, I can get a good sampling of the sounds of the elderly.  The mucus-filled coughs, the “HUH’s?”, the constant popcorn jangling (seriously 80% of old people buy popcorn).  And Nebraska was an extra special senior discount showing, because it was a theater filled with old people watching a movie ABOUT old people.  That’s like some Inception levels of geriatric layering.  …Oldception?  Ok, I’ll see myself out.

Nebraska is about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man and father who has drank his life away.  He still manages to keep his family, but with the cost of emotional distance.  One day, he receives a letter in the mail saying he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, and he has to go claim his prize in Nebraska.  His son David (Will Forte) immediately notices that it’s a very obvious magazine subscription scam, but offers to drive his dad to Nebraska anyway, in order to give the guy something to live for, and also to get the bonding time with his father that he never had a chance to get before.  Along the way, they stop at Woody’s childhood town, and have an extended and hilarious family reunion.

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The standout role in this film, for me, was that of Woody’s wife and David’s mother Kate, played by June Squibb.  She was funny as hell.  Normally I don’t care for old person acting inappropriate-type humor, but she took it to a higher level.  She transcended the usual Adam Sandler movie “Oooooo!  I pooped my pants! (giant fart noise)” type old person humor, and instead went into “You see that guy?  He tried to grab my tits 40 years ago.  Now let’s go get dinner.”  type subtle old person humor.  She has a type of honesty that I respect in old people.  If you’re so old that you feel you can say whatever you want, then she’s doing it right.  Hey, as long as she isn’t the clichéd over-sexed grandma (also a Sandler movie staple), I’m happy.  On a quick side note, Squibb also just had a borderline Emmy deserving guest performance on HBO’s new show “Getting On” two days ago, in which she also played a brutally honest old bat.  I think my new ranking of favorite old lady actresses now goes:

1.  The grandma from Happy Gilmore (Sandler’s only perfect use of a grandma)

2.  Estelle Harris

3.  June Squibb

4.  Ellen Burstyn

5.  Doris Roberts (NO RELATION)

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Bruce Dern does a sufficient job for the role of Woody.  He’s not really given much dialogue, because the character isn’t much of a talker, but he does a lot of noticeable acting through his expressions and body language.  He does this thing where he sticks his tongue out right before he takes a drink of beer, and he did it every time, and I wasn’t sure if it was something Dern chose to do with his character, or if that’s just how he drinks beer in real life, but I couldn’t UN-see it once I started noticing it.  Anyway, I wouldn’t hold out hope that he gets any acting awards for the role, but he plays “confused drunk grandpa” with slightly more realism than Johnny Knoxville did earlier this year.  Will Forte (MacGruber) proves he actually has acting chops.  Though, I *also* wouldn’t go as far as to say that his work is mind-blowing either.  But Forte and Dern fit the movie perfectly, and their (intentional lack of) chemistry is the main source of momentum for the film.  Some of the other supporting roles went to Stacy Keach as the local jerk, and Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother, who seemed like a good fit to be Will Forte’s brother.  Most of Woody’s relatives and the local town folk were so genuinely boring and droll (in a good way) that it had me questioning whether they were even actors at all?  And one of David’s cousins, perhaps the funniest non-Squibb character in the film, was played by the (now obese) actor who played Buzz in the Home Alone movies.  Woof! [breaks picture frame]

Bruce Dern as Woody in a film still from Nebraska

The aesthetic elephant in the room is the black and white cinematography.  I personally didn’t care for it.  I also am not sure why it was done, other than to make the film stand out as *the* black and white movie of 2013?  But the problem is, other than maybe a few scenic shots, the film isn’t shot particularly brilliant in its use of the black and white.  Now I’m not badmouthing the framing or anything like that, that was well done.  Just the use of light and shadow.  I mean, if you’re gonna shoot black and white, then make it be an awesome high-contrast, deep black kind of thing, right?  A lot of this film felt like it was just desaturated color footage.  I *hope* that wasn’t actually the case, because that would be a terrible idea; so if I assume that’s not going on, then it was just kind of a poorly shot movie.  Eh, weird choice.

The film also has a very slow pace, but it’s clearly supposed to be slow, so I can’t hold that against it.  Besides, any issues I could have potentially had with the pacing were eradicated by the consistently good humor throughout.  Alexander Payne has always been good at balancing drama with comedy, and he’s getting closer and closer to perfecting the mixture.  I got emotional at the end, but not overly emotional.  It has a good payoff of a final sequence.  I’d rank Nebraska well below Sideways and Election, but above The Descendants and About Schmidt.  It’s probably tied with Citizen Ruth.  Alexander Payne’s filmography kind of rules, just sayin’.  At this point I’d say it’s safe to recommend any of his movies to most people.  Go see Nebraska.  It’s worth it.  But go to an evening screening, as to not bother the hunched over wrinkled folk who don’t want your young person stink all over them.

8 out of 10

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