Alexander Payne should be known for Nebraska as much as he is for colourful comedy The Descendants which, yes, thanks to one George Clooney, glowed in Hollywood’s gaze but smacked of first-world problems.
Now for a bittersweet elegy shot in black-and white starring Will Forte, chiming with the longing for a past that once was and can never be again. You starting to notice a pattern? I sure am.
Nebraska is funny and tender. Bruce Dern’s alcoholic Woody thinks he has won the lottery, humoured by son David (Forte, my favourite Saturday Night Live lone voice in recent memory). For Woody, the money would validate his life amounted to something. That’s as tragic an idea for the film to take up, and it does. But the journey there is an amusing walk, often stepping on upturned plugs and cracking of immediate regret. It’s the stab of Payne. It’s Payne’s pain.
Dern and June Squibb are terrific together, the former’s blandness highlighted by the more showy turn that Squibb gives (and just watch what she does in that graveyard).
It’s the heart of Nebraska I love most, though, one that’s soft and still pulls punches, just through the sensitive approach. That comes down to the nuance Forte provides, which is appreciated. He alone can carry the beauty of the black-and-white, and his face often speaks for the whimsy of sad and charming that Payne seems to be constantly striving for in his works.
Payne’s themes land, too: male disappointment, realisation, vanity. Clooney’s solemn pondering expression would have sucked a lot of what makes this film tick (partly because he’s so captivating sitting on the beachside shore). It’s Dern all the way here, and I’m glad his delicate touch won him best actor at Cannes for his part in this.
That’s absurdly glitzy a note to end on, the kind which took away from what supposedly made The Descendants special. I won’t feel too bad, though.
I’ll just stick to knowing Nebraska is great for all its unspectacular methods.