The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"NEBRASKA"

Nebraska

Nebraska is a real odd duck of a movie, and thank goodness for it. The film is shot in uncommon black-and-white, and it stars Bruce Dern, a talented actor who's not exactly a huge box office draw these days. Even odder, it pairs Dern with Will Forte, the goofball Saturday Night Live/MacGruber comedian, in his first dramatic role. That it all works is no surprise, though; the director is Alexander Payne, a filmmaker who specializes in eccentric stories and unexpected approaches. From Election to Sideways to The Descendants, he has a knack for surprise.

Dern plays Woody Grant, an elderly man showing early signs of dementia. His wife Kate (June Squibb) has grown tired of dealing with him, and his latest antic is especially getting on her nerves. Woody has received one of those Publisher's Clearinghouse letters telling him that he's won a million dollars, so he intends to make the long trek from Montana to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Also making the trip is exasperated son David (Forte), who is just humoring him. They get waylaid in the tiny burg of Hawthorne, Nebraska, which is Woody's hometown. There, he reconnects with family members, an old business rival (Stacy Keach), and assorted friends. Despite David's insistence that it's all a big misunderstanding, everyone thinks Woody is well on his way to becoming a millionaire. That changes how they relate to him, while also creating a number of situations that allow David to learn things he never knew about his old man.

Despite the borderline sitcom-y premise, that's exactly what Nebraska is about - the things parents do not say to their children. Woody has a lifetime full of mistakes, regrets, and tragedies that he's never talked to David about. They are things he's kept hidden, for his own private reasons. In learning some of them, David comes to see his father in a new light. The man he's basically regarded as an old kook is, in fact, much more complicated and wounded than he realized. Payne takes Bob Nelson's funny, subtly deep screenplay and crafts a film that will have you wondering about the hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks your parents never shared with you about themselves, Or the ones you'll never share with your own children.

Payne has made the interesting decision to shoot the film in black-and-white. I don't know what his logic was, but it absolutely feels right. There are many shots of the heartland – fields, one-street towns, etc. - that make Nebraska reminiscent of The Last Picture Show. Both films have that kind of lonely, isolated feel. The cinematography also helps convey the barrenness of certain parts of middle America, which is used to represent the barrenness of the Woody/David relationship. I would argue that black-and-white is as essential to Nebraska as 3D is to Gravity.

This is one of those cases where a great older actor is handed a career-reinvigorating role. Bruce Dern has spent the last number of years as a supporting/character actor. With Woody Grant, he gets the chance to step front and center again. He does not waste the opportunity. Dern gives an authentic, lived-in performance, the kind of thing that transcends “acting” so that you stop seeing a recognizable star and only see the character. It's a fine, accomplished turn. June Squibb is perfection as Woody's fed-up wife, but the real surprise here is Will Forte. He played so many extremely weird characters on Saturday Night Live (and played them so well) that I never expected he'd be capable of such a quiet, sincere performance. That it's so opposite from anything we've seen him do adds to the power of Forte's work. He's a revelation.

Nebraska is funny and touching in equal measure. There are hilariously wry moments of observational humor, such as how the Grant fellows are men of few words whose conversations largely revolve around checking the status quo of each other's automobiles or travel time. Yet the story builds to a climax that I didn't expect, one that avoids predictability in favor of genuine meaning. We're left with a portrait of a son truly meeting his father for the first time, despite having known him for decades. Alexander Payne has pulled off another winner. The warmth of Nebraska makes you feel all good inside.

( out of four)


Nebraska is rated R for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.


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