‘Nebraska’ – a movie that is less about a state than a state of mind

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Bruce Dern never was much of an actor, and all the critics’ accolades for “Nebraska” don’t make him one.

With “Nebraska,” director Alexander Payne wanders into Coen Brothers territory.  That is, a foray into black-comedy Hicksville — in this case, the titular state, where Payne was born, and for which, Payne insists, he still has much affection.

Well, if this is a movie about some place he likes, I’d be interested in seeing what he does to a place he doesn’t.

Actually, “Nebraska” is less about a state than a state of mind. Woody Grant (Dern) is a grumpy old man who long ago crossed the line into cantankerous old coot. Apparently, he was a cantankerous young coot as well. Now an elderly alcoholic with a sharp-tongued wife (June Squibb), Woody is convinced he’s won a million dollars. He just needs to get from Billings (Montana) to Lincoln (Nebraska) to claim it.

For some reason —generally known as, “if this didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be a movie” — his son David (“SNL’s” Will Forte) agrees to drive him there. Granted, David doesn’t have much going on either. His live-in has left him, and he works at an electronics store. We are to believe that David believes that this trip could result in some father-son bonding.

If you’re wondering about the film’s intended tone, the state border is marked with a welcome sign reading, “Nebraska…The Good Life. Home of Arbor Day.”

Are we snickering yet? If not, Payne makes a stop-over in tiny Hawthorne, where Woody was born and where several relatives and old friends still live. Who are these people? Folks who live at the corner of Pilcher and Plum Streets and who sit slack-jawed in front of the TV.  Or slack-jawed in a lawn chair watching traffic go by.

A family reunion is arranged, presumably so we have more small-town Old People to chuckle at. Some Young Folk, too, most notably a Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair of rotund, dim-witted cousins who turn greedy the minute Woody mentions he’ a newly-minted millionaire.

Will he and David ever get to Lincoln? If they do, how will Woody handle the realization he’s been Music Man’d so to speak (i.e., bamboozled as completely as the good citizens of Iowa were by Robert Preston). Most of all, will father and son bond during their road trip?

Payne has done any number of terrific pictures:  “Sideways,” “Election,” Citizen Ruth.” And his “About Schmidt,” which also tackled issues of aging, is a sublime film, with a beyond-sublime performance by Jack Nicholson.

Maybe that’s what happened. Payne offered “Nebraska” to Nicholson who turned it down and suggested his old pal “Dernsie” instead. (When Nicholson hit it big after “Easy Rider,” his unflagging loyalty to others from the Roger Corman repertory of Z-level movies is legendary; he handed Dern big roles in “The King of Marvin Gardens” and  “Drive, He Said.”)

Dern has always been an opaque actor with a penchant for obvious choices, whether it’s in “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” or “The Great Gatsby.” Now that same crud is being read by many critics as brilliance because he’s playing an old guy.

On the plus side, Phedon Papamichael’s pristine black-and-white photography is drop-dead gorgeous.  And Nebraska does its part, whether it’s wintry landscapes or the remnants of a tiny town whose last picture show played a long time ago

But this good work is in service of a film that asks us to revel in a too-familiar deadpan dead-end. Seen it, seen it, seen it. In David Lynch’s luminous “The Straight Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth or the Coen’s “Fargo,” which had Frances McDormand and a woodchipper going for it.

Wow. It takes a lot of courage to take shots at Midwestern geezers.

And why does Nebraska get this while Kansas got Dorothy, Toto and the whole damn gang. Thankfully, Payne isn’t from Georgia. His “affection” might be too much for me to handle.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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