I’m not a fan of “feel-good” movies. Yet, I’ve got to say it: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is feel-good as fuck.
What’s the only way to make a legitimately touching movie? Be sincere about your characters. Be real about where they end up and how they get there. But above all, make a good goddamned movie. Don’t throw in overcooked music and tears. Just make a good movie. It’s a tough act, but Nebraska manages. Is it low-key? You bet. But I found myself laughing more during Nebraska than I did during Anchorman 2. And yes, I did like Anchorman 2.
There’s something a lot more satisfying about the wind-up of consistent laughter, as subtle as it may be, rather than the forced yucks of a heavier handed comedy. I would say I’m not a fan of the road trip movie, but I loved Albert Brooks’s Lost in America, and Alexander Payne’s earlier Sideways. Come to think of it, all of Payne’s movies are road trip movies. If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree no one makes them better.
Most movies are about heroes and exceptional people. Nothing wrong with that. It wouldn’t take much searching on this blog to discover I love big movies, at least when they’re done right. But movies like Nebraska are about us. Thank the Hollywood gods there are still people like Payne to bring us back down to reality every once and a while. I need big, “stupid” Hollywood comedies like the latest Will Ferrell vehicle as much as the next guy, but it sure is special when a Nebraska comes along.
The movie opens on a bridge in glorious black & white. Bruce Dern, looking characteristically disheveled, is walking towards us. A sheriff pulls up and asks Dern where he’s headed. Dern points ahead. Then the sheriff asks where he’s coming from. And Dern points behind him.
Dern’s son (Will Forte) is a stereo salesman going through a recent breakup with a painfully average woman. He’s the one who has to pick Dern up from the police station. He finds out his dad has been suckered by a million-dollar sweepstakes scam which aims to sell magazine subscriptions. It’s the second time he’s attempted to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, which is where the sweepstakes office is located. Dern’s wife, who isn’t one to bite her tongue, says, “If the sonuvabitch wanted to be a millionaire, than he should’ve worked for it.” Later we learn Dern married his wife because he had nothing better to do at the time.
But there’s more to it than that, you’ll find, as the movie peels its layers like an onion. It becomes apparent why these people are the way they are and how they got to be that way. It plays more like a mystery than a comedy, constantly revealing tiny details with every new interaction between characters. It’s bittersweet, but that’s the best kind of sweet. We all know the million dollars Dern wants isn’t real. But while you may expect sadness at the end of this journey, you’ll get a Hollywood-style payoff. By then, the movie’s earned it.
Nebraska gets a lot of points right out of the gate. It’s got Bruce Dern in it, who’s been criminally underused in movies as of late. Stacy Keach is in there, too, playing the kind of character you love to hate. Bob Odenkirk is solid as Dern’s older son. If you don’t like Odenkirk, I’m just not sure what kind of person you are. And June Squibb, who plays Dern’s hypercritical wife (you’ll recognize her as Jack Nicholson’s late wife in Payne’s other movie, About Schmidt), probably has the funniest lines in the entire movie.
Then there’s Will Forte, who seems like the odd guy out until you actually see the movie. He’s the perfect sad clown. He’s got a face that’s perfect for something like this. I liked him on Saturday Night Live, but here you see a much brighter future than what most SNL alumni get stuck with. This is the road Sandler could have (and should have) gone down if he hadn’t been so focused on mumbling/yelling movies with pointlessly stupid high concepts.
I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t a movie for everyone. A lot of its charm might be lost on people who didn’t grow up watching Bruce Dern. The fact nothing blows up or nobody gets shot is probably a detriment to today’s low-attention moviegoers. But for others, it’s a hugely entertaining flick, at times hilarious when it’s not content with being merely funny. Design a scene around an air compressor and you’ve got my attention.