92% on Rotten Tomatoes?
New York Times Critics’ Pick?
Six Oscar Nominations?
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.
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.