Silver Screen: Nebraska ****1/2
Of the two dysfunctional-family movies dominating awards season, it’s the quieter, gentler Nebraska that’s the most memorable. It’s a wry, generously paced movie that languidly doles out bone-dry comedy and keeps its drama understated, but director Alexander Payne finds great resonance within his small story. The far more hysterical August: Osage County prefers its truths screamed and slurred. The ferocity of an idea’s projection doesn’t necessarily expand its profundity, although this adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play does make a case for sheer ferocity. The blistering dialogue alone makes it worth watching, even if the brutal musicality of the language significantly trumps the insights it carries.
Both movies feature aging alcoholic men fleeing domineering matriarchs, but Nebraska’s Woody (Bruce Dern) never gets too far. He’s in ill health and can walk no more than a few miles from his home in Billings, Montana, before his dutiful son David (Will Forte) tracks him down and urges him into his car. Woody is walking because he’s convinced a misleading piece of junk mail soliciting magazine subscriptions is actually the million-dollar grand prize-winning sweepstakes ticket it claims to be. He doesn’t trust the U.S. mail with the golden ticket, and his short-tempered wife Kate (June Squibb) won’t drive him to the processing facility in Lincoln, Nebraska, so he plans to make his own way.
David can’t convince the old man the letter is a scam, but he decides they need some quality time together and agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln. Along they way they visit relatives in a nearby small town, and David learns hidden truths about his parents’ life the repressed family has never shared.
A black-and-white movie about a delusional, aging alcoholic digging up family secrets sounds morose at best, if not downright bleak, but director Payne treats the material with a light touch. The original screenplay from Bob Nelson is full of keen observances about the rhythms of small-town Midwestern family life. The scene in which the group of older men, relatives reunited after decades apart, sit in near silence and watch football is pitch-perfect, as compactly funny and straightfaced as a Bob Newhart routine.
Woody is no rager, but a taciturn beer-guzzler who turns inward because everybody seems to want something from him. Dern plays him as cantankerous but not cartoonishly grizzled, soulful but not self-aware. He’s no Bad Grandpa, although his honesty does come out in hilarious spurts, as when David tentatively asks if he’s ever regretted getting married and Woody shoots back, unhesitating, “Oh, yeah, all the time,” before qualifying it with the followup, “But it’s not so bad.”
Forte and Dern make a nice pair. The former makes a significant departure from his Saturday Night Live persona. He was one of the show’s odder, more outlandish performers, and his only other starring vehicle was the fantastically strange—and underrated— MacGruber. But the guy best known for playing enthusiastic weirdos is convincing as a sympathetic but frustratingly passive Midwesterner. Dern is always the focal point, but Forte is the audience’s surrogate.
Compelling as Dern is, he’s nearly upstaged by Squibb, who steals her handful of scenes and makes the movie’s most surprising transformation. The supporting cast is rounded out by a wonderfully unlikable Stacy Keach, the always welcome SIU alum Bob Odenkirk, and a dash of broad comic relief from Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll as David’s gleefully clueless cousins. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with decidedly non-Hollywood types who lend an extra air of verisimilitude to Payne’s warm, thoughtful film, one of 2013’s best.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.