I’ve remarked in the past that Alexander Payne’s films so completely embody their topics and material that it’s hard to believe the same director is behind them all. With that in mind, I knew I had to go into Nebraska with as few expectations as possible, despite having seen two other Payne films and being quite taken with both of them. I guess I could say that, even with my intentionally avoiding preconceived notions about the film, I was still expecting something a little more than what I ended up getting. This statement comes with a big “however”: I fully attribute this lack of satisfied expectation to my cursory mood on this particular day. I wasn’t in a poor mood, but I wasn’t in the right kind of mindset to fully appreciate what this film does have to offer, which I could still tell was quite a bit.
Nebraska is the story of Woody and David Grant, a father and son who barely speak to each other, living in Montana. Woody is found wandering the roads one day, and after the police bring him home and call David, it’s revealed that Woody has gotten a letter in the mail saying he has won a million dollars, and that he must collect the prize in Lincoln, Nebraska in person. David, seeing the letter and realizing that it is nothing more than a mail order scam to sell magazine subscriptions, reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln himself, mostly to get him to stop wandering off to go collect it on his own, but also to reacquaint himself with his dad in the meantime. Thus, one of the most unconventional road films is born, and Payne, being the kind of director that he is, adheres to the formula with such a zest and fervor that the film is ultimately made much more than it otherwise would have been, which is saying something seeing how I ended up with the film after I’d seen it. This is actually the first Payne film I’ve seen that he did not also write, and for whatever reason this fact kept replaying itself in my head while I was watching the film. As solid as the direction was, along with the cinematography (coupled with the good decision to make the film black-and-white), I couldn’t help but feel that Payne had made much more of the material than what was given to him, and that most of the film’s success lies with him instead of screenwriter Bob Nelson. The underwhelming script aside, everything else about the film was quite nice, up to and including Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, for which he won Best Actor honors at Cannes that year.
It’s thanks to Nebraska that I can debut another film-related word to the site’s vocabulary: tragicomedy. I include it because I don’t think I’ve seen a film before that I can so easily and accurately apply the word to, until Nebraska. Here’s the thing though; while a tragicomedy can be a very endearing experience, providing shallow and pitiful laughs every now and then, there isn’t a whole lot of entertainment value to it. You’ll smile often, especially at what could modestly be called the film’s climax, but that’s about it. Lessons are learned, character arcs are traversed, and morals are imparted. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being overly cynical; like I said, I could tell halfway through this that I wasn’t in the right mood to really appreciate it. Still, I really can’t call this one a loss, so Alexander Payne is still batting a hell of a percentage with me so far. I can see this getting culled from the list within a year or two, but it was still nice to have seen it.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10