The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Nebraska | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Nebraska

A son takes his senile father to Nebraska to claim a nonexistent lottery win.

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

When Woody Grant (Dern) is plucked from the side of a busy Montana highway, he reveals his plan to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a million dollar lottery prize. The "win", however, is a scam run by a magazine subscription firm, but Woody ignores the advice of his son David (Forte) and insists on making his way to Lincoln. Deciding he could use a break himself, and seeing it as the only way to get through to his father, David takes Woody on a trip to Nebraska. When they make a stop in the small town Woody grew up in, the locals hear of his "win" and, incorrectly assuming he's about to become a millionaire, set about attempting to get their hands on Woody's non-existent money.
Alexander Payne is a film-maker whose work provokes mixed reactions. While I enjoyed About Schmidt and Sideways, I found the praise heaped on Election and The Descendants baffling. I've always thought of Payne as a poor man's Todd Solondz, unwilling to take his work to the extremes of Solondz in an attempt to court mainstream success. His films usually have a condescending tone towards their characters in a way that makes me feel Payne grew up feeling, as most artists do, like an outsider in his community. The greatest artists accept this status and focus on observing life from the outside but Payne's work suggests he wants to be on the inside while at the same time launching attacks on the "little people" he resents for his isolation.
Whereas this attitude has plagued his previous films, it's precisely what makes Nebraska his best work to date. Payne, and writer Bob Nelson, place us in the center of a family unit. From the moment we meet Woody, we adopt him as though he's our own father. When the locals of Woody's childhood hometown accuse him of owing them money, we instantly presume they're telling porkies in an attempt to con some money out of a senile, naive old man. On closer examination of the evidence, we realize they're probably telling the truth. But we don't care. Woody's family damn it! And family sticks together.
At times the comedy plays a little too broad and obvious, especially in the use of Woody's foul-mouthed wife, but there's some genuinely brilliant situation comedy of the type that would make Larry David envious. A running gag about an air compressor Woody loaned to Keach in 1974 comes to a hilariously awkward conclusion. 
Dern hasn't been afforded a part of this magnitude since 1979's Walter Hill masterpiece The Driver and he takes to it with the passion of an actor who knows this is likely his final leading role.
Lately we've seen a raft of films featuring aging protagonists (Song For Marion, Le Weekend, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and they've all too often employed a patronizing tone, using the tired premise of making their protagonists behave like youngsters. Nebraska is a movie about an old man, one that thankfully allows its protagonist to simply be an old man. 
Old people are far more cinematic than young people (they don't speak as much and there's usually more going on behind the eyes) so it's a shame we get to see them on screen so rarely. There hasn't been a movie this substantial with an elderly lead since the stunning The Straight Story back in 1999. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 14 years for another one.

Eric Hillis