The Infinite, Irresistible Melancholy of 'Nebraska'

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You and your family are going to die. Sorry to say it in such blunt terms, but it's a fact of being alive in this world that, eventually, everyone you've ever known and loved, and you too, will be gone. If you don't like hearing that in such stark terms, but you don't want the truth too sugarcoated either, may I suggest Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska, a wintry but ultimately kindhearted new comedy about family and the terrible creep of mortality. There are certainly some heavy themes at work in Payne's film, my favorite of his since the similarly toned masterpiece About Schmidt, but as usual, he handles them with homey grace and good humor.

Despite the film's title, we begin the story in Billings, Montana. A man named Woody (Bruce Dern), maybe in his late 70s or early 80s, trundles down the highway with shambling determination. Seemingly addled, he's picked up by a friendly police officer and taken in to the station. When Woody's son, David (Will Forte), comes to collect him, we learn that Woody has recently received one of those scam letters from a publisher's clearinghouse loudly proclaiming that he's won a million dollars. Though his nagging wife, Kate (June Squibb), has tried to convince him that he's not actually a sudden millionaire, Woody won't listen to reason. He can't drive anymore, so he's taken to trying to walk to the Lincoln, NE offices of the clearinghouse, insistent on collecting what's owed to him. David, who has a dull job at a home electronics store and whose girlfriend has just moved out, decides that if his dad isn't going to give up this cockamamie ghost, then he may as well take him there himself.

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So the beginnings of Nebraska, which is filmed in gorgeous black and white, are a road film, Woody ornery and disoriented, David frustrated with his father but wearily tolerant of his one-last-thing fool's errand. A lifelong drinker, Woody takes a spill one night while stumbling into his motel room and winds up in the hospital. When he wakes up, David informs him that instead of going to Lincoln, they're headed to Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, a small farming community that Woody is more than reluctant to visit. But visit they do, with Kate taking a bus down from Billings and David's brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), driving in to provide backup. They reunite with Woody's many brothers and their wives, with a few cousins too, and Payne gives us a look at a small-town Midwestern family reaching the end of its line. There's a slight bitterness in the air — as there always is in Payne's films — but also a sense of wonder, at how lives trickle and ebb, days and months and years filled with both inevitability and utter randomness.

As the family revisits the past, the film oscillates between piquant humor and melancholy. In one of the movie's many lively yet doleful scenes, the family visits a graveyard where Kate gives an unmerciful but decidedly honest explanation of who is lying under each stone, secrets and lies and tragedies all related with a salty matter-of-factness that's both startling and oddly reassuring. Kate, more than anyone else in the film, seems squarely at peace with the mundanities and inane injustices of an average life; they are what they are and then everything stops, so might as well chuckle at them. In this scene and others, Squibb is a riot, but she never overplays. She's incredibly natural, perfectly blending in with the texture of the film, which features many "non-actors" (a phrase I kind of hate for its dismissiveness) alongside the pros like Squibb.

Really, though, this film belongs to Dern, who communicates oceans of resentment, regret, and despair with mere dismissive grunts or nods of his wispy-haired head. Owing to age and alcohol, Woody fades in and out of lucidity, and Dern's performance intriguingly, and sadly, suggests that Woody may occasionally be playing up his confusion as a means of escape, preferring to retreat into his batty old codger role than confront the realities of his largely unsatisfying life. It's a performance you might be tempted to call restrained, except that it's so bursting with feeling, in ways big and small. There's no line between the actor and the role, no showy bits of idiosyncratic choices or telegraphed motivation. Payne's film feels strikingly real, even in the more heightened comic moments, and is commandingly anchored by Dern's riveting and gently, subtly heartbreaking performance.

What could, and should, be called restrained is Bob Nelson's beautiful script, a marvel of understatement that gives each character moments of triumph without veering into ugly sentimentality. Nebraska, despite all its sighing about time and family and home, is ultimately an upbeat film, but in a way that feels entirely true, and human. My favorite scene, which is perhaps also the saddest, involves the family touring Woody's childhood home, a now-abandoned farmhouse littered with dust and scrap wood and teeming with ghosts. Though it could easily have been a scene done in monochrome bleakness, Nelson manages to wring a small note of sweetness out of this dilapidated old house and the sad stories that have settled into its bones. Though they are mostly gone now, some people lived here once. And though it's sad that all that living was so long ago, it's nice that it happened at all, isn't it? Nebraska nods a quick and wistful yes and then, like we all gotta do, ambles on as best as it can.

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