The subject of winning and losing big has been a mainstay in American cinema since at least the 1920s. But I imagine even the most jaded viewer, after taking note of the direction Nebraska seemed to be headed toward, would have let its elderly, barely sane protagonist, Woody (a terrific Bruce Dern, worthy of the Best Actor award at Cannes), get what he wanted with the help of a miracle. Especially given the sort of wringer Alexander Payne puts him through. That wouldn’t have made the occurrence any less dishonest, and most familiar with Payne’s cinema would agree that he’s one of the most honest filmmakers around.
And honesty, I would say, is the film’s greatest virtue. Most movies about average Joes (or Janes) slowly but surely reveal to the audience on their way to cozy and glib endings that he or she is not so average after all—just like the rest of you! Not Nebraska. The more Woody’s son (Will Forte), essentially our surrogate, learns about his father from his hometown friends and relatives, the more he becomes aware of the fact that all facets of his old man’s life—marriage, family, work, childhood—have more or less been ordinary, which he probably suspected all along. If anything, he may have been more flawed than expected. (The one thing Payne doesn’t have to worry about this time is quelling the ego of his protagonist. Poor Woody was and is so nice that many continue to take advantage of him). But even being ordinary takes some doing, which this funny, moving, gently elegiac film raises as one of its key themes.
Nebraska isn’t perfect. Woody’s two nephews in the fictional backwater of Hawthorne, where most of the film unfolds, are crudely drawn, even if their actions hint at the often-overlooked issues of aggression and misogyny when it comes to small-town life. It would have been easy here for Payne to become too nostalgic about “the way life was” or “the way things used to be.” But he has proven to be too smart too fall into that trap (remember the opening monologue George Clooney delivers about Hawaii in his terrific 2011 effort The Descendants?). The ironic distance he maintains allows him to depict both the place and its people as genuinely as possible (the monochrome color palette is utilized quite effectively). The Preston Sturges comparisons are not off the mark, but Sturges was rarely this touching.
The other flaw, again a minor one, is giving June Squibb (who plays Woody’s irascible wife) a little too much freedom at times (was Payne making up for killing her off early in 2002’s About Schmidt, the last film he set in his home state of Nebraska?). For instance, the scene at the cemetery goes from being raucously funny to mildly discomforting. But when it comes to dishing out truths like bitch-slaps, she’s the director’s axiom (and it’s easy to see why a taciturn Woody once chose her over a more homely ex-girlfriend, beautifully played by Angela McEwan). Payne also isn’t shy about placing his most tender sequence (the walk through the old homestead is nearly as gravely impressive as a similar sequence in Kazan’s 1960 Wild River) between two of his most comical, almost slapstick ones (the nightmarish family luncheon and the “robbery” at an old mill). But then, he has gradually become more accustomed to making us laugh and cry at the same time. Payne’s the closest filmmaker we have today to the Japanese great Gosho Heinosuke.