Nebraska – ★★★★

As one of cinema’s most consistent filmmakers, Alexander Payne has built up a strong CV of well-crafted films over the years including About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) and more recently, The Descendents (2011). His latest release, the low-budget comic-drama Nebraska, looks set to continue that trend as he teams up with veteran actor Bruce Dern (Coming Home, The Driver) and Saturday Night Live comedian Will Forte to deliver another heartfelt story about real people having to deal with real problems. It would appear to have come in perfect timing too with Oscar season now in full flow….

SYNOPSIS: When dementia-suffering Woody Grant (Dern) finds a certificate stating that he has ‘won’ a million dollars, he decides to travel from Montana to Lincoln in order to pick up the money. His son David (Forte) tries to point out that the win isn’t legitimate and that he is wasting his time, sentiments which are echoed by his nagging mother Kate (Squibb). However Woody refuses to listen which leads to the pair making the journey across states. Along the way, they end up staying with family members at Woody’s old hometown. But when the relatives learn about the old man’s win, they pressure him to spread the financial love unaware that it’s all a hoax.

A common theme with Alexander Payne’s work is the way he mixes various elements of his previous films into this latest outing. With assistance from screenwriter Bob Nelson, Payne continues to inject dark humour in the masterful script from Nelson as the pair depict the characters as realistic and the type of people that audiences can relate to. The lack of attractive individuals actually works well and makes a refreshing change as it gives us a chance to see normal people doing normal things e.g. Woody and his male relatives sat in the living room watching sport on the TV and make small talk. This also comes from Payne’s low-key representation of America as he chooses to ignore the mainstream side of it and instead focus on the small-town communities and those that have financially suffered from the recession. Editor Kevin Tent and cinematographer Phedan Papamichael manage to maintain this structure with the latter filming in glossy black and white to capture the dreary mood of the American heartland with additional support coming from Mark Orton’s rich, instrumental score. However the towering success of the film comes from the actors with the two male leads shining most. With his blank expressions and sheepish appearance, Bruce Dern gives a remarkable performance as a man whose age and dementia has caused him to become clueless but refuses to let it affect him when trying to achieve his goal.  Given that other Payne actors like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney were lavished with awards recognition in the past, an Oscar nomination for Dern would be a satisfying result for someone who was last nominated way back in 1978! Will Forte provides stable support as the long-suffering son who becomes frustrated by his father’s actions yet tries to give him something to live for as the plot moves forward. The duo’s chemistry is a rare delight as they make a believable father-son pairing with their constant arguments and sharing bottles of beer together. Ably supporting the duo is veteran actress June Squibb as she plays Woody’s nagging wife Kate brilliantly with her cranky yet concerned outbursts. Out of the three actors, she benefits most from the film’s terrific script by unleashing smarmy remarks on near enough everyone (including the graves of her late relatives!) but never goes too far in being cynical. It’s also refreshing to see Bob Odenkirk in something that isn’t Breaking Bad as he lends a bit of subtly to his role as Woody’s more successful son.

However the film just falls short of being an indie-masterpiece which is down to a couple of chief flaws. Firstly, Payne does tend to stereotype certain characters such as David’s cousins. While the pair bring out the laughs with their stone-faced expressions and sneery responses, they are portrayed as overweight comedy punch bags which takes away the realistic aspect of the small-town folk. Payne also overlooks a couple of back-stories that come and go such as David’s relationship with his former lover which occurs near the beginning but is completely forgotten about later on. Finally, the film does takes time to really settle especially after the first twenty minutes and probably isn’t the easiest one to sit through with its lingering camera shots and lacking a change of scenery.

VERDICT: Despite issues with its pacing and the odd piece of stereotypical casting, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a finely tuned and emotional tale of optimism and broken dreams with old Bruce Dern giving a majestic performance.

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