Alexander Payne is one of my favourite directors. His last two films (Sideways, The Descendants) both made my top ten of their respective years. So when Nebraska started getting rave reviews, my expectations got very high (never a good thing), resulting in the almost inevitable disappointment, though it was only slight.
Nebraska is a quaint and quirky film about a Montana family experiencing the ‘joys’ of aging. The father (Woody, played to perfection by Bruce Dern) receives a letter in the mail which makes him think he has won a million dollars. He wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. The mother (Kate, played beautifully by June Squibb) is fed up with her husband’s lack of sense and his obsession with buying a new truck which he’s too old to drive. The oldest son (David, played by Will Forte) is stuck in a rut and finds himself in the role of caregiver for his dad. Unable to convince Woody that the letter is just a scam, he finally offers to drive Woody to Nebraska. But Woody has a drinking problem, has a nasty fall as a result, and they end up visiting Woody’s brother’s family in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up.
At this point, Nebraska becomes a film about family, going home, regret, the way people remember the past and how people react when Woody announces he has won a million dollars. There are numerous funny and precious scenes as family members interact and squabble, and the dialogue has a distinct natural feel, as does the film as a whole, aided by the gorgeous black and white cinematography (perfect for the barren landscape of the prairies). But this is also where my minor disappointment lies, because I thought some of that natural acting felt forced rather than believable. The result, for me, was a slight sense of inconsistent performances from everyone outside of Dern and Squibb (with the possible exception of Stacy Keach). This made it a little more difficult for me to care for the well-drawn characters.
These minor complaints would have been forgotten if the ending had worked for me. But it didn’t. The ending had its own kind of satisfaction and I can understand why it was written that way (in many ways, it was a perfect ending), but it just wasn’t believable to me (i.e. I couldn’t get over the feeling that the ending was cleverly contrived by the writer rather than something the characters would naturally have done, especially noticeable in a film that was all about acting naturally).
Nebraska is a charming entertaining film about revisiting the past and how families change when they move from the rural life to the city. As my colleague, Dan Dyck, noted, it could just as easily have been set in the Canadian Prairies. I highly recommend Nebraska, but it will not quite make my top ten of 2013. It does get a solid ***+. My mug is up.