At last a film directed by Alexander Payne that I actually like! About Schmidt (2002), the comedy drama that stared Jack Nicholson as a retiree who goes on a road trip following the death of his wife, is as near I’ve come so far. I certainly could not warm to Sideways (2002) mainly because I did not like any of the main characters, alcohol bores do nothing for me, but even this movie was not as dreadful as Descendants (2011) a subdued overindulgent movie that even George Clooney could not pull out of the fire. So why is Payne’s latest film, Nebraska (2013), so much more enjoyable, well perhaps its because he had so little to do with the writing, leaving it up to scribe Bob Nelson to prepare a brilliantly entertaining and humorous debut script partly based on the writers own family history in Illinois. In fact like some of the best stories its simple premise is full of great characters that are both believable and real. Phedon Papamichael, who had worked along side Payne in his two previous outings, shot in black and white, his cinematography underlining the economic decay in America’s heartland where the story is based.
Woody Grant insists on travelling some 750 miles from his home in Billings Montana to collect the $1 million prize money he’s convinced he has won in a company’s sweepstake. Prepared to do the journey on foot if necessary Woody’s middle aged son David offers to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska to collet his ‘winnings’ despite his mother Kate’s disapproval. But due to Woody’s deteriorating mental state or was it a beer to many, the old man has a bad fall, ends up in hospital which forces father and son to spend a weekend in Woody’s old home town where Kate and David’s brother join them for a family reunion. When the town folk hear of Woody’s ‘good luck’ long standing grudges and family secrets seep to the surface.
Its strength in in its simplicity and in its acting, bringing to mind David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) about another cantankerous old man who makes a long journey by lawn mower to mend his relationship with his brother. Bruce Dern, who won Best Actor at Cannes for his role, has been making feature films and TV series for best part of 54 years. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Woody Grant and certainly deserves this Oscar nod. 84-year-old June Squibb has also been nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her wonderful performance as the matriarch Kate Grant. The comedy actor Will Forte who plays his role with such feeling plays David Grant; you could almost believe that Woody and David are actually father and son as their mannerisms are so close. Supporting roles come from Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant and Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram an old adversary of Woody’s. A gem of a road movie that proves emotional wealth is far more important than financial. Payne’s film has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but I imagine that it will be overlooked; nevertheless it reminds you how good American independent cinema can be.