Bruce Dern, Will Forte Charm In Memorable "Nebraska"

Modern day black-and-white films aren’t rarified air, but they’re not exactly easy to come by – even in the wake of Best Picture winner “The Artist.” But Michel Hazanavicius’ decision to shoot his tribute to silent film in black and white was inherent in the material. Alexander Payne’s determination to shoot his father-son road movie, “Nebraska,” in grayscale? Not quite a no-brainer. In fact, Paramount was so against it that Payne was forced to briefly walk away from the project to make his point. He got his way, but it came at the price of a deflated budget.

Yet, when it comes to behind-the-scenes drama, talent has a way of bursting through, and “Nebraska” – in all its black and white glory – is no exception. Chalk it up as another win for Payne, who’s best known as a scribe (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) but wisely ceded writing duties this time around. He clearly knows a quality screenplay when he reads one, and this one – by Bob Nelson – is as benevolent and intuitive as anything Payne has ever written. If his goal was to stretch his directorial wings, he couldn’t have found a story with a better fit.

The black-and-white photography is essential here, accentuating the flat, often barren landscape of the state of Nebraska and its neighbors. But more importantly, it strips the pic’s imagery of distraction, compelling viewers to home in on the narrative and the characters that inhabit it. Without color, the scenery is still vibrant – albeit in a more ethereal, mournful way – but it allows the actors to become one with their monochromatic surroundings. In an era lacking in black-and-white films, Payne’s latest only stands out that much more – as we’re watching it and in our memories long after we’ve left the theater.

For anyone who’s had the displeasure of seeing a loved one wither way, “Nebraska” will hit home. But the film doesn’t merely call on life’s toughest moments, but the tiny, joyful, revelatory instances born of those hardships. It’s funereal, celebratory, self-effacing, and poignant all in the same breath, the effortlessness of Bob Nelson’s script creeping up on its audience ever so slowly – until we forget we’re watching a movie.

Bruce Dern has received most of the film’s awards season chatter for his role as Woody Grant, an elderly man with signs of dementia. And the adulation isn’t misplaced as he’s quite good in the role, one that requires a delicate balance of aloofness, regret, intellect gone by, and occasional rays of warmth. But this is Will Forte’s film and the former “Saturday Night Life” cast member makes a massive impression with his first major dramatic role to date. To see a comedian branch out into other genres is naturally interesting, but to watch a typically loose cannon play it straight is nothing short of mesmerizing.

The film begins with Woody receiving a sweepstakes (read: junk mail) letter informing him that he’s won a million dollars. Confused by this revelation and having had his driver’s license revoked, he decides to walk to Nebraska to collect his prize. Woody’s son, David (Forte), quickly tires of chasing his father down, day after day, and having to return him home. Despite protestations from his painfully plainspoken mother, Kate (June Squibb), David decides to take his father on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to investigate the source of the letter.

What follows is an atypical road movie, mostly centered on a stop in Woody’s hometown – Hawthorn. The narrative is a slow starter, but once Woody and David find their way to the heart of Hawthorn, the script’s comedic elements heat up and the laughs begin to pile up alongside a considerable helping of sentiment. Some of the pic’s most genuine scenes feature Woody and his extended family staring blankly past the camera, watching sports on TV. It brought me back to the peculiar family gatherings of my youth, and every character tic – no matter how big or small – rang true.

The supporting cast, led by Squibb – who’s an absolute firecracker in her role – is well suited to offset the more understated tendencies of the leads. Bob Odenkirk features as Ross, David’s news anchor brother, while Rance Howard runs away with each of the handful of scenes he’s in. It’s a wondrous assemblage of actors and Payne gets quality work from all of them – even those who are obviously newcomers discovered while filming on-location.

Payne has a remarkable talent for wringing emotion out of the simplest moments, and “Nebraska” is no exception. Bruce Dern’s line delivery alone – all of his lines are delivered as if he was just awakened from a deep sleep, a flashlight thrust in his face – is worth the price of admission, and coupled with a director of Payne’s intuition it makes for one of the most confident films of the year. The aforementioned first act is too sleepy for its own good, but it mirrors the relationship between David and Woody. As the picture ebbs and flows, so does the bond between father and son.

Fans of Dern and his co-stars should be pleased with everyone’s work here while fans of Payne won’t miss his instantly recognizable writing style. It’s there in Nelson’s script, it’s there Payne’s own direction, and it’s there in the performances. “Nebraska” is inimitably charming, as amiable as it is illuminative. It’s lightweight, sure, but for admirers of the cast and crew, it’s not to be missed. Its simple but effective portrait of growing old is likely to connect with adults of any age.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 15, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
MPAA Rating: R (for some language)