Nebraska: Just Send Me a Postcard (Spoilers)

92% on Rotten Tomatoes?

New York Times Critics’ Pick?

Six Oscar Nominations?

Nebraska movie

Image: Cinema Scope

I guess I was expecting more.  Alexander Payne’s latest film and homage to his hometown, Nebraska, didn’t much impress me.  Like his previous films, About Schmidt and The Descendants, the film has a meandering, reposeful tone – one which you can sense has a poignant undercurrent, some unspoken message.  I suppose this time, although I recognized what that message was, the film didn’t speak to me on a personal level.

The pastoral images of middle America in Nebraska certainly deserve recognition, as we move with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a stubborn, boozy old man, and his son, David, from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes prize.  On the way, the pair stops in the father’s hometown, a fictitious location called Hawthorne, filled with characters you might expect from small town, middle America – a place that time and the economy have left behind.  The film also stars June Squibb as Woody’s brassy wife, Kate, and Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, a Hawthorne townie and man with which Woody has unsettled business.

I think that the real standout performance of this film is not Woody, but David – played by Will Forte – the estranged son of an alcoholic father who strongly reminds me of Dante from Kevin Smith’s Clerks.  We get the sense that he is the Greek chorus of the film and his family’s story, the one who, despite the baggage of his upbringing, is able to be at least slightly meta with it all.

Nebraska movie

Image: IndieWire

In the film’s climax, when Woody and David finally make it to the nondescript sweepstakes center, I found myself thinking, “wait, is there a chance he actually did win?”  You can’t help but admire his perseverance.  When the gum-snapping woman behind the counter tells him that he didn’t win, Woody leaves, discouraged.  When the woman asks David if his father has Alzheimer’s, David replies, “No, he just believes stuff people tell him.”  

This is, without a doubt, the best line in the film, as it speaks of a generation nearly extinct, those who still use the phonebook, those who still call the library to ask the proper way to address a letter, those who, when using a computer for the first time, see the ads in the sidebar and think they all speak the truth.

The story arc of this film is interesting, because Woody’s family knows that his sweepstakes win is bogus — it’s not unlike the dozen or so emails we receive on a daily basis congratulating us on our free all-expenses paid cruise around the Caribbean. Woody refuses to believe this, even after his crusade lands him in the hospital, at blows with his extended family, and makes him the butt of the town’s joke.

We as audience members also know that he’s not a winner, but Woody never gives up. As a man near the end of his life, it seems he wants to achieve celebrity status from those in his hometown, and wants to leave a substantive legacy to his children.  All this seems almost secondary though, as we consider the real tragedy of Woody’s story – that the unsuspecting mindset of a man of his generation is incompatible with the duplicity of ours.

6/10

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Categories: Reviews

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6 replies

  1. Good review. I basically agree. I think this was good (still gave it a B), but I also think there some flaws, both narratively and in characterization of secondary players.

    I totally agree that Forte’s is the best performance here.

  2. Nice review. Payne’s movies are all like this, and while this surely isn’t his best, it’s still an assured movie from a guy who seems comfortable enough to do what he wants to do, and be able to get away with it somehow.

    • I agree and I do genuinely enjoy unusual films like this. I definitely appreciate his commentary about what is essentially the “heart” of America. About Schmidt had a similar tone to it where you weren’t really quite sure of the message, yet you somehow felt it was there, collectively.

  3. I just watched this Saturday night!

    I have some thoughts to share that are still fresh in my mind…seems like here is a good place 🙂

    I thought it was pretty good. It had some humorous parts but most of the things I found myself laughing at I felt guilty in doing so…which made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Overall I felt a sense of sadness while watching this film.

    Another flaw (at least in my opinion) was that I could easily figure out what was going to happen in the plot. I found myself predicting a lot of the scenes, and I feel like it was just too much. I typically like some of the things I think will happen in a film to happen, but probably not to this extent.

    I guess mostly I found myself examining this from a developmental psychology standpoint. I recently took a course in the subject and my professor really helped us look at media critically portraying different parts of the lifespan. It’s not all that often we see stories like this in movies really, so that’s cool.

    I want to be able to say that the setting makes a difference in the way Woody turns out in old age, based upon his earlier experiences and the environment he grew up with, but I think it can happen to anyone, at least of that generation, regardless of location. Case in point, I saw a lot of similarities to my Grandmother here, who is very similar to Woody in character and the way she’s responded to having a difficult past/life in her current life stage (as being an older person).

    I watched it with my mom, who is in a similar place of David, and though she reacts a bit differently to my grandmother, I think it might have hit home a bit more for her.

    I think there might be a few messages in this movie, but I think it addresses several issues as well that make them seem like they are making a stand on them? I’m not quite sure, though, but I think you’re right to pinpoint the line David says when they go to the sweepstakes office.

    Sorry this post is long. It was cool to see you post about this in my blog feed and having just watched the film, I feel like I can contribute to the discussion.

  4. Thanks so much for your insight, Banana Curl Vegan Girl! It’s funny, you’re the third person to tell me that they watched this movie on Saturday night, lol!

    My mom is also of the sandwich generation, like David and your mom (although David is a bit younger and doesn’t have children). You’re right that there aren’t very many films that examine aging like this one does.

    I think that Woody’s generation is definitely a product of their upbringing – he is so concrete, and just wants a) a truck and b) to leave something to his sons. I think the fact that David “got it” at the end that his Dad really just wanted a truck and to drive down the main road in his hometown like a big shot was really nice.

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