Alexander Payne has a knack for creating quirky characters in Oscar-winning films like ‘Sideways’ and ‘The Descendants’. His newest movie strikes a more somber note than his previous work, but still manages to deliver some laughs. The black-and-white road trip drama exposes a family’s appalling behavior when one member believes he’s hit a sweepstakes jackpot. With an impressive cast led by Bruce Dern and Will Forte, ‘Nebraska’ may even garner some awards come Oscar season.
Woody Grant (Dern) is a senile, bitter old man. He’s first seen walking very slowly on the side of a highway in his hometown of Billings, Montana without a care in the world. His youngest son David (Forte) has just been dumped and works a retail job, and wants a better relationship with his estranged father. His mother Kate (June Squibb) steals every scene she’s in with witty insults toward her family and stories of her promiscuous youth.
Woody can’t drive so well anymore, and often sneaks out without telling anyone. At first, we figure that he’s lost his mind. Although this might be a little true, we soon find out that Woody has received a letter in the mail claiming that he has won a million dollars. All he has to do is travel to Nebraska to claim his prize. I’m sure we’ve all received similar junk mail before, but in Woody’s mind, he believes that this is legit. In an effort to reconnect with his dad and give him his one last goal to live for, David agrees to drive him to Nebraska so that Woody won’t have to walk 850 miles, which he’s completely prepared to do.
At first, ‘Nebraska’ plays out like a road trip comedy with some funny scenes involving missing dentures, a railroad track and Mt. Rushmore. As father and son reach about 60 miles outside their destination, they stop to visit Woody’s brother Ray and his family. David’s mom and his older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join in on this impromptu family reunion. It seems like the men of the family are silent 98% of the time, leaving the women to bring up the past and ridicule one another. No matter how much David insists how obviously fake this million-dollar letter is, everyone’s true colors come out, as they try to scam, physically harm, and threaten Woody and David for a piece of the non-existent loot.
Payne paints a portrait of the true nature of family life with plenty of satire. His decision to shoot the film in black-and-white emphasizes how the small Midwestern town has been pushed aside and left for dead. Businesses are closed left and right, and people in town seem to be on their last legs. The beautiful cinematography might also be a metaphor for the foggy mindset and depressing events that plague this family. However, in the end, family proves stronger than anything.
‘Nebraska’ is chock full of great characters, hilarious dialogue and strong performances by everyone. Dern never overplays his characte’s senility. At times, he shows that Woody is still sharp as a tack. Forte is also pretty terrific as a depressed man desperately trying to enjoy life. Squibb’s comic delivery and eye rolling had me laughing out loud.
I had the honor and pleasure to sit down with the talented Will Forte to talk about ‘Nebraska’. We discussed his role and what it was like working with Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern, Bob Odenkirk and June Squibb. We also talked about his record high ‘Donkey Kong’ score, his passion for karaoke, and his favorite scenes from movies. Forte even sings “War Pigs” in his German accent from ‘Beerfest’. Enjoy the fun interview.