Nebraska – Warm, funny, real, Alexander Payne’s latest work tells of plain, everyday, hard-working folk living in America’s agricultural heartland

© Paramount Pictures

Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). Nominated for 6 Oscars, with another 22 wins and 62 nominations, including Best Actor for Bruce Dern. 77 Years old, he plays the role of Woody Grant, who is convinced that he has just won $1 million dollars on a lottery ticket. This is obviously a con, but the old gent, not in total possession of his faculties, dulled with alcohol over a lifetime, will not be dissuaded. Collecting his winnings means traveling nearly 1,000 miles from his home in Montana to the lottery office in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Hardly an easy task for someone not only unfit to drive, but practically unable to walk. His family’s skepticism only serves to harden his resolve, and eventually his son David (Will Forte) is coerced into driving his long-estranged father to pick up his winnings.

And so begins a bizarre road trip through one of the most scenic landscapes in America. Bearing in mind that location has always played such a key role in his previous works, it may seem strange that Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS, THE DESCENDANTS) has chosen to shoot his latest film in black and white. A major departure from his visual style, it nonetheless adds a fascinating tristesse, making it the perfect backdrop for this comedic- melancholy tale.

Father and son experience various entertaining – albeit for David, irritating – adventures on the road, eventually stopping in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town of Woody’s birth, to pay a long-delayed call on his detested relatives. And this is where the movie really takes off.

When it comes to character development and restrained humor, Payne has an unmistakable approach that once again comes into play. For although this somewhat simplistic family story is interspersed with the director’s typical humoresque and has some great laughs to offer, it is yet imbued with a deep melancholy and a certain sadness – many scenes are almost too painfully true to life. This gives NEBRASKA its undeniable authenticity, making it both hugely amusing and depressing at one and the same time. Just like life can be, I suppose.

It is without doubt Payne’s most defiant work, especially when compared to his greatest commercial and artistic success to date: the Academy Award-winning THE DESCENDANTS, which grossed almost $200 million. To follow that with this relatively low-budget ($13 million), almost minimalist, black-and-white motion picture is more than unusual and truly daring. But for Payne that seems par for the course, choosing to present his intimate tales in the most appropriate manner without conceding to either audience expectations or studio demands. And with NEBRASKA, this approach has paid off, for it is hard to imagine this somewhat scurrilous tragicomedy any other way.

The same applies to his casting. While Bruce Dern’s performance is obviously most noteworthy, a fact that has been recognized by critics and his peers alike, the performances of his supporting cast are, without exception, as surprising as they are outstanding. Special mention must be made of the actors who play Woody’s two sons: Will Forte, former member of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE comedy ensemble, together with Bob Odenkirk of BREAKING BAD – both mastering roles that are beyond their stereotypes. And, of course, the delightful June Squibb for her role as Kate, Woody’s long-suffering, yet still mischievous wife – another worthy Oscar contender in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Getting back to the plot: does Woody Grant make it to Lincoln, Nebraska? Does he pick up his $1 million? I won’t spoil it for you, but meanwhile just about everybody in Hawthorne has found about his stroke of good luck and, one after the other, turn up looking for handouts, business investments, settlement of long-forgotten but mostly illusory unpaid debts, and just about anything else they can think of to get a piece of the action. Not excluding a hilarious attempt at burglary.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is a masterpiece. Warm, funny, real, it tells of plain, everyday, hard-working folk living in the America’s agricultural heartland. The kind of story that is rarely told, NEBRASKA is a rare cinematic treat, and will move you to tears.

* * *

NEBRASKA – (USA, 2013); Genre: Comedy/Drama; Running time: 115 Mins; Director: Alexander Payne; Writer: Bob Nelson; Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk; Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; Music: Mark Orton; Distributors/Release dates: Paramount Vantage (USA) / 16. Jan, Paramount Pictures (Germany/UK)

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