Film Review: Nebraska

Hey everybody, the Oscars are on this Sunday! That’s right, the most prestigious night in the field of film will be broadcast to millions of people, most of which will probably care more about Ellen DeGeneres’ hosting than the actual awards. It’s sure to be an incredibly entertaining night, with 90% of the awards already being pretty much decided by now (congrats to 12 Years A Slave for winning future Best Picture!) and 90% of the ceremony being Hollywood patting itself on the back for being just so darn great.Nebraska

All cynicism aside, I do appreciate the Oscars for bringing me a list of some of the best movies being released each year. I almost never agree with who they ultimately choose as winners (I mean, Argo over Django Unchained? C’mon.), but I do love the Best Picture nominee list for exposing me to some great films. Cue Nebraska, the newest directorial effort by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), up for six Oscars (including Best Picture) on Sunday and favored to win exactly zero.

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Nebraska is about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man becoming more senile by the day that believes he’s won one million dollars in a sweepstakes. His son David (SNL‘s Will Forte, in a rare dramatic role) continues to tell him the prize is a complete hoax, but Woody won’t let it go and so the two of them go on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to go back to Woody’s hometown and claim his faux-winnings.

If there was a list of the types of people marketers and Hollywood investors valued the least, rural country folk over the age of 65 would be damn near the top (probably about on par with the Amish). Which makes Nebraska a bit of a curio and a change of pace for American viewers more apt to watching tits and explosions for an hour and a half.

But that’s where the film gets most of its charm. Shot in purposefully modest black and white, Nebraska is the movie version of a big ol’ Midwest family vacation. There’s a bunch of people you don’t really know that well and don’t really relate to, and myriads of empty, slow-paced conversations about Fords and long-dead friends. But while it sounds like a terrible time, there’s still something oddly fascinating and charming about it.

The film is quite realistic and effective in getting down this rural, western feel, and I almost felt at times like I was back in South Dakota visiting my relatives again. But it’s really hard to tell whether Payne is deriding or embellishing in the “simpleton” lifestyle portrayed here, and it often feels like he’s doing both at once. It muddles up the feel a little bit, as you don’t know if we’re should be laughing at these characters or laughing with them.

I feel like I’m not selling this film at all and making it sound like the newest cure for insomnia, but I promise you it’s not! It’s actually quite wryly funny, the plot is often predictable but never uninteresting, and it’s simultaneously heartfelt, life-assuming and depressingly futile. It also has some magnificent performances, especially by lead Bruce Dern, who literally gets everything right as Woody. Also of note is the spunky, feisty Jane Squibb as Dern’s wife.

So, in the end, Nebraska is mostly a winner. I’m not entirely sure of the director’s intentions with it and it certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but some should like it a lot. You won’t see it winning Best Picture on Sunday (nor should it), but it’s definitely worthy of a nomination.