Nebraska is a disappointing case of great scenes in search of a story, which is a shame, because Alexander Payne once again proves capable of executing comedically what few others even attempt. So much comedy now (and maybe always) comes from young, hip, city dwellers, and the tone and premises reflect that sensibility. You’re not going to see a Brooklyn Nine Nine episode about trying to fix your grain silo, say. The little comedy that doesn’t come from hip urbanites is usually the Blue Collar Comedy-type stuff, which is the comedic equivalent of modern country music, where it’s so wrapped up in being identified as “country” that it spends all of its time screaming LOOK HOW COUNTRY I AM! and shamelessly pandering to its idea of that demographic. That’s how we end up with things like a song called “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” which has to be one of the all-time stupidest things ever written or sung. Alexander Payne, who directed Election, one of the best comedies of all time, is one of the few creators out there that does comedy and tells stories about small-town America honestly, without condescending or pandering.
Stripmalltown, Anywheresville is always being unilaterally celebrated or ridiculed in pop culture, when, for those of us who were born there, it’s never quite that simple. It’s more just a place we know well that we have mixed feelings about. Few people’s work is better at reflecting that than Alexander Payne’s. I’d love to see him inspire others to similar projects, but he’s probably not going to do it with a black and white movie about a sad old man.
Bruce Dern plays the sad, vaguely dementia-addled old man (I say vaguely because it’s communicated mainly through his wild hair and confused look) trying to get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect on a publisher’s clearing house mailer that he thinks he’s won. No one wants to help him because it’s a dumb idea, so he’s constantly just shuffling off in the direction of Lincoln. People see him on the street and yell “Hey, get back here, old man! Where do you think you’re going? You’re so… old!” and he gets locked back in his couch dungeon once again.
But he proves so persistent about the trip that his son, played by Will Forte, eventually Macgrubers himself some time off from the stereo store where he works to help his confused pop tilt at windmills. Along the way, they stop in Dern’s (fictitious) hometown of Hawthorne, where we meet his nap-loving brother and buffoonish nephews, one of whom just did time for a sexual assault charge, and is played by Buzz from Home Alone. “Bitch lied,” he deadpans.
It’s in the family interaction scenes that Nebraska really sings. In the same way that Aaron Sorkin sometimes confuses smart writing for writing cartoonishly smart characters (often surrounded by idiot straw men), a lot of comedy rests heavily on characters who are themselves smart and witty and quippy. And if it’s not Seth Rogen or Danny McBridish one-liners, comedy is normally populated by characters who are preternaturally articulate and questioning of even the most mundane tenets of society – think Seinfeld, or Larry David, or Woody Allen (it’s a style of comedy I associate with Jewish New Yorkers). Nothing against that type of comedy, but not everyone is as outwardly questioning of societal minutiae as George Costanza. Especially not dour, upright Midwesterners of Teutonic stock. Alexander Payne has this rare ability to create witty, articulate comedy out of characters who are neither funny, articulate, intelligent, or even particularly verbose. People can be funny precisely for their lack of guile.
In this scene – this shot alone is hilarious – set at Forte’s brother’s house in Hawthorne, Payne creates comedy out of two old guys asking each other about cars they used to own and not being able to hear each other that well. It’s perfect. There are so many things about small-town America that Payne and Nebraska screenwriter Bob Nelson absolutely nail. When Forte tries to have a heart to heart with his father about marriage and raising a family, he sits there trying to dig some sentimentality out of the old man, asking “Well… were you and mom in love?”
“Hell, I dunno. It never came up.” says the old man.
June Squibb plays Dern’s wife, who, as Heather previously pointed out, is a delightful firecracker with about a million funny lines, though she does occasionally edge into old-lady-who-swears-and-talks-about-sex cliché territory. Like when she flashes her old vagina at the cemetery, over the headstone of a guy she says was always trying to “get in her bloomers.” Okay, pipe down, lady, this isn’t Off Their Rockers.
June Squibb’s vagina aside, the bigger problem is, despite the abundance of funny scenes and characters, Nebraska is still the story of a sad, not-particularly-likable guy, on a pointless depressing quest, through some of the country’s most monotonous terrain, after a prize we know doesn’t exist, all shot in black and white over the soundtrack of a sad lonely trombone in a sewer pipe (to paraphrase Patton Oswalt). Between the ugly, digital black and white cinematography and a soundtrack that was mostly negative space, and sounded like PBS interstitial music when it was present, I’ve never seen a movie that felt like it was trying so hard to give me seasonal affective disorder. The trip to Lincoln in the film functions as a climax, but because it’s all for a prize we know doesn’t exist and won’t redeem him at all, it’s inherently an anti-climax. That’s a hard thing to pull off (same pick-up line I used on your sister). And they delay the trip for so much of the film that you find yourself thinking, “Jesus Christ, can they just drive this old f*cker to Lincoln already?”
They say the root of all writing is people and place, and Nebraska does those incredibly well. I get what Payne and Nelson are trying to do with the Lincoln trip, but it’s also hard for me to completely enjoy a movie when I’m mentally screaming OH GET ON WITH IT ALREADY for half of it.