With the holiday season upon us, Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska” reminds us that family comes first, no matter what. Following his previously successful films “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendants” (2011), Payne returns with his passion for character driven storylines, this time focusing on a modern day Midwestern family.
“Nebraska” follows the story of the Grant clan. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) learns that he has won $1 million in an advertising sweepstakes scheme intended to gain more magazine subscribers. Instead of mailing in his winning ticket, he decides to walk all the way from Montana to Lincoln, Nebr., himself to turn it in. The film’s opening scene shows a hitchhiking Woody being picked up, yet again, by the local police department. Later, Woody’s son David Grant (Will Forte), is roped into his journey. Woody, too unreasonable and stubborn to give up, and David, too kind to refuse, finally end up on the road on their way to Nebraska.
Payne’s fascination with the American landscape shines through in this film, as it did in “Sideways.” The road trip plot allows for some truly breathtaking shots of the Midwest. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael creates another character through his lens – America. It follows the characters on their journey and evolves with them, from depressing and desolate to powerful and proud. This portrait of Middle America is endearing and, more importantly, relevant and applicable to most viewers. Despite the very specific location and characters, Payne has created a universal family – one anyone can relate to. The family has its quirky characters, its levelheaded members, its turmoil, its triumphs – in short, the Grants are the perfectly imperfect family.
Despite all its strengths – the beautifully low-key story, its compelling portrayal of a family and its intricately crafted shots – the film fails on a more basic level: as a technical work of art. “Nebraska” is in black and white, which isn’t an issue in and of itself, but there doesn’t seem to be a sufficient reason to justify this artistic decision. In fact, the road trip aspect could have actually benefited from being in color. Even if some of the shots still featured grey scenery, it would have allowed the audience to actually see the grey in the landscape.
Unfortunately, the film also suffers due to the acting. Will Forte just isn’t able to hold his own in his first dramatic role, following his more typical goofball parts on “30 Rock” (2006-2013) and “Saturday Night Live” (1975-present). He simply doesn’t command any respect on screen alongside veteran actors Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and June Squibb.
His performance feels unnatural, with his delivery of lines often coming off as forced. Forte seems out of place on screen, and as one of the leading characters, this ultimately undermines the rest of the film. Along with the choice to set it in black and white, this will make viewers very aware that they are watching a film. Instead of getting lost in the story, the portrait Payne spent so long creating falls apart.
Despite its shortcomings, audiences are sure to relate to this beautifully honest representation of a family in need of repair.
The film has its endearing moments, and Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant, Woody’s other son, is extremely entertaining. Compared to Payne’s terrific road movie “Sideways,” however, “Nebraska” just won’t hold up.