There’s a time and a place for a film like acclaimed director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. It’s called Sundance. While character films are nothing new for Payne, Nebraska is certainly a change of pace—that of a crawling snail. While there are laughs to be found, especially when the two main actors are Will Forte and Bruce Dern, they’re pretty scattered throughout a slogging running time of nearly two hours. This is the kind of film that calls attention to itself being released in a limited run merely to try and scrounge up Oscar buzz. Ironically, the one person who actually succeeds here is June Squibb, playing Dern’s wife and Forte’s mother with one of the wickedest tongues this side of Kathy Bates.
Nebraska refers to the state’s capital city of Lincoln, which is where Woody Grant (Dern) is headed to on foot when he’s picked up by a police officer. Woody’s son Grant (Forte) retrieves him and takes him home to his wife Kate (Squibb). Woody explains that he was on his way to Lincoln to claim the $1 million he thinks he has won in a sweepstake. Kate and Grant know that it’s a marketing ploy, but after Woody takes off on his own again by foot, Grant decides to appease his father and drive him to claim his prize. Along the way, the two stop at Woody’s brother Ray’s (Rance Howard) house. Soon enough, the whole town is hearing about how a local boy makes good and wants a piece of the pie. Woody and Grant also meet up with Woody’s old buddy Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who feels like Woody owes him $10,000. Along the way, Grant comes to understand more about his poor father than he ever thought he would.
Another father/son film has come out this year that is superior to Payne’s efforts here: About Time. Both films have far different motives, but the biggest thing they have in common is that no one is going to see either of them—at least if About Time’s box office is any indication. Walking out of Nebraska, a colleague and I both felt like we’d walked out of a Press & Industry screening at Sundance. Thankfully, Payne’s cast makes up for the slog of a screenplay by Bob Nelson. Bruce Dern has already won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the film was nominated for the Cannes Best Picture prize, the Palme d’Or. But I doubt we’ll see Nebraska vying for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Forte shows he can do more than the silly characters we’ve come to expect after being on Saturday Night Live and MacGruber, but Squibb steals the show. Her barbs come fast and furious and the most unexpected things spill forth from her verbal diarrhea. If anyone really stands a chance of being recognized at the Oscars, it’s going to be Squibb and Dern. This is their show and they both perform admirably. The funniest bit involves Ed singing Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto.” The film features a deserved payoff but takes way too long to get to it. Had Nebraska been shaved down by about 20 minutes to a half hour, it could have zipped along into greatness. As it stands, Nebraska is the type of film where you’re glad you’ve seen it—and you should—but will probably never watch again.
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