Claiming Your Million in “Nebraska”

July 28, 2014

Brilliant on all fronts

Alexander Payne, Nebraska, the audience awards film review, bruce cern

Image courtesy of Indigodergisi

I blame Saturday Night Live. It’s their fault that I avoided Nebraska (2013) for as long as I did. Past experience says that, with rare exceptions, films featuring SNL alums will only make me mad—my life robbed of ninety-plus precious minutes. It’s why I passed on MacGruber, forever and for always. So, the fact of Will Forte’s inclusion in the cast of Nebraska seemed to settle it just fine for me. It went into the “no, never” pile, with nary a backward glance, not even for the love of Bruce Dern.

That was before I watched the 2014 Academy Awards, before I’d seen the clip of Kate Grant (June Squibb) hoisting her skirt to flash the grave of her long-dead suitor, before she won me over with a gawk at her knee-high nylons. The same knee-highs my own mother had relied on as “stockings” for too many years. Like my mother, I imagine Kate (self-proclaimed city-girl) had been rather dishy back in the day, before the rigors of childrearing, housework, holding down a full-time job, and marriage to a belligerent man had thickened her frame.

Nebraska is the story of the elderly, “beer-ain’t-drinking!” alcoholic, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his quest to claim a million dollar sweepstakes prize. Both of his sons know the sweepstakes letter he received in the mail is a scam, and his acerbic wife, Kate, is absolutely unsympathetic. “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire. He should’ve thought about that years ago and worked for it.” That’s her retort to their son David (Will Forte) when he delivers Woody home from the Yellowstone County jail. The sheriff had found him walking along the side of the road, headed east toward the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody’s no idiot; he knows better than to trust the U.S. postal service with that kind of money.

Still courtesy of Hear Nebraska.

Still courtesy of Hear Nebraska.

In the face of Woody’s persistence, David relents and the two of them pile into David’s Outback and set out for Lincoln—just a quick trip to the redemption center, just over and back. Three days, tops. They didn’t anticipate the side trip to Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown, or the obligatory, spontaneous family reunion with their conniving relatives. Then there were the run-ins with Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner. (The karaoke buffet is a definite bright spot.) And it’s safe to say that Woody’s boys never anticipated coming to see their alkie father any differently, either.

Nebraska was brilliant on all fronts. It was shot in black and white, doing artistic justice to the beauty of the prairie-west. The film’s score, composed by Mark Ortman, is fabulous. The well-rounded complement of unapologetically salty characters is impeccably cast. The dialogue is witty as hell—never forced or gratuitous. When an eyebrow or a gesture could get the job done, an eyebrow or a gesture was allowed to carry the weight. Every single scene of the menfolk gathered around the television in Uncle Ray and Aunt Martha’s living room had me near hysterics. Admittedly, I have an affinity for little old men (my husband has observed), and I fell particularly hard for Uncle Ray (Rance Howard, the stoic genius). Though, I must say, Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) and Kate’s confab at the kitchen table, bringing Kate up to speed on all of the local gossip was equally a hoot.

Nebraska even nailed Billings, Montana—right down to the MSU Bobcats emblem on the wall of David’s apartment, the view from I-90’s eastbound on-ramp at 27th Street, and the caliber of news-anchoring at KTVQ. These details are likely irrelevant to most people, but they were ridiculously satisfying to me, having lived in Montana for almost twenty years. They’re the kind of details that helped me relax and trust Alexander Payne’s decision to cast Will Forte. They’re the kind of details that guaranteed I was all-in by the first shot of Woody’s having a piss in the ditch, just off some undeclared exit along the interstate.

With respect to Will Forte, I stand happily corrected. It would serve him well to shed those curiously popular SNL characters and get his tuckus in hot pursuit of more roles like that of David Grant.


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