Ever year at the Oscars, there’s always at least one relative unknown sitting quietly in the best picture nominees, the quiet wallflower next to all the big, loud, boisterous high profile, talked about movies with advertising budgets that could take a chunk out of the national debt. This year, that movie was Nebraska, the latest film by Sideways director Alexander Payne. I admit, the movie didn’t interest me that much, and it was only when the siren calls of Bob Odenkirk and Will Forte lured me over like a ship to be dashed on the rocks. Though thankfully no rock dashing was involved, and Nebraska turned out to be a delightful experience.
Forte stars as the listless young man to end all listless young men, soft spoken and thin and recently singled. His father, played by Bruce Dern, is determined to make it to Nebraska to collect a non-existent million dollars he thinks he’s won in a magazine sweepstakes despite pleas from Forte, his other son played by Odenkirk and his wife, played by June Squibb. Eventually, Forte buckles, taking his dad on a road trip that gets waylaid when Dern gets drunk and bashes his head open, prompting an extended stay in his home town, where Forte learns more and more about who his father was as a young man.
The film seems to be going for a very American Indie vibe, shot in glorious black and white, slow paced, set in small midwestern towns and full of epically empty frames that emphasis the expansive countryside and endless skies. It’s almost My Own Private Idaho in terms of looks, though sadly without William Richert playing an out of place Falstaff and Udo Kier occasionally popping in to be Udo Kier.
A lot like Forte himself, the film does feel a tad directionless for the first act or so. At first it seems like we’re in for a good old fashioned road movie, but this soon proves not to be the case when the action plops itself down in Dern’s sleepy home town and refused to move like a spoiled child pulling a sulk. Not that this is a bad thing, once the film finds it footing, but I got the sense for the first forty five minutes or so that the film hadn’t quite found its voice yet.
Of course, once that voice is found, the film starts belting out the deadpan humor and heartwarming bonding moments like a tenor in full form, usually leaving me laughing or with a warm smile on my face, though not strictly in that order.
Where things to falter, even after this, is the acting. It felt as though anyone under 60 was instructed to deliver as flatly as possible out of fear of overshadowing Dern and company. Forte’s deliveries usually feel somehow off, lacking a certain believability of conviction. He’s not normally one for playing the straight man part, and he often seems out of place. Odenkirk doesn’t have much to do, and while he does feel more comfortable in the part, he never exactly dazzles.
But if my conspiracy theory back there is true, the instruction was entirely uneeded, as Dern and company are prettymuch across the board fantastic. It’s a very hard thing to play a character already beset by senility, getting the vacant stares and and such right without coming off as comical or dottery. Squibb, while given a less intense role as the mother, is another standout, and Stacey Keach does a great job as the local complete and utter bastard.
It’s a very easy movie, one that isn’t concerned so much with challenging us with emotionally supercharged stories or characters or technical or formal envelope-pushing, but one just content to tell a simple story of parents and children, the past, regrets, and growing old. That’s not to say it isn’t technically very impressive, the compositions are often quite breathtaking, pushing the environment to the forefront with long shots, or closing things in just enough to be intimate without being cramped. But it isn’t what I’d call an ambitious movie, and I think that’s what I like best about it. Unlike most of the other best picture nominees this year, which seemed to be vying for our attention with technical wizardry, emotionally supercharged performances and immaculately sculpted haircuts, Nebraska is content to lull us into a sense of easy comfort and contentment, content to occasionally reach out and pluck and our heartstrings gently and tenderly, rather than make a B-line for them and not let up until we’re emotionally drained and just want to crawl into a chair and watch something emotionally vapid for the next few days.
And really, I think that’s what I like most about Nebraska, it’s a smooth cup of well-brewed coffee that’s content to get by on atmosphere, a few stunning performances and easy charm. It leaves you with a smile and a twinkle in your eye and a warmth in the cockles of your heart, and normally I don’t let anything near my cockles that hasn’t bought me dinner first.