Review: Nebraska (Payne, 2013)

Still from the movie Nebraska

So we continue to watch Oscar movies, though the season has passed.

Alexander Payne traverses familiar territory with this tale of family (as in The Descendants), the elderly (About Schmidt), and the quietly pathetic (About Schmidt, Sideways). If you’ve seen the previews, you will already know that the film follows old man Woody Grant on his quest to travel from Montana to Nebraska and claim his million dollar winnings from a magazine sweepstakes. Bruce Dern (father of Enlightened‘s Laura Dern) gives a standout performance as the stoic, curmudgeonly, somewhat addled Woody, who unwillingly drags his son David (Will Forte) along on his odyssey. Since it’s Alexander Payne, you know the movie will be filled with quietly comedic moments in which the audience both laughs at and is drawn toward a cast of ordinary, often slightly unlikable characters.

After The Descendants, I was worried that Payne’s next film would be just as disappointing. Perhaps partially as a result of my lowered expectations, I found Nebraska to be pleasantly satisfying. I knew it wouldn’t be a fast ride, but I was happy to relax into each wry moment, always kept by its humor from succumbing to too much pathos. If the tale felt too neat, a bit already-done, I was willing to forgive that because it was at least well-told.

My complaints with the movie are mostly trivial. First, I don’t understand the fuss over June Squibb, who plays Woody’s wife Kate. I thought the pacing of her delivery was a little off, which gave her performance a forced, recited quality, which I was only distracted from by her salty, firecracker lines. Maybe there was more improvisation there than I could know, but either way her acting was far from perfect (especially when there are so many outstanding actors who do get it all right). Second, I could have done without the black and white. It was distracting and gave the film a strange, ill-fitting Leave It to Beaver/Alfred Hitchhock quality that I don’t think was intended. My husband said he liked it, though (except that he kept thinking he saw snow everywhere), so it’s likely just a matter of personal preference. He suggested that maybe old people look better in black and white. Well, I guess everyone does, so I suppose he’s right. Still, if you’re doing something in story-telling that’s not necessary–that’s only novel for the sake of being novel–it feels like a pretty cheap trick.

We discussed later whether Nebraska should have beat out Her for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. We decided that, though Nebraska‘s story was more polished, Her was still more original and gutsy. Anyway, Payne already won two Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for The Descendants (blah) and Sideways (yay).

Final assessment? Nebraska is a movie most will admit is good, but few will claim is outstanding.