by actor Bob Odenkirk
Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s comical, heartbreaking, road-trip family-film, is a hard, tiny, nugget of a story that is also a grand, epic, human comedy, bursting with sadness and comedy. I promise you, it contains multitudes.
You may have heard that it’s a spare tale in a black-and-white etched landscape. It is that. Phedon Papamichael’s Cinema-scope photography will envelope you in stunning exteriors that marry Ansel Adams with Walker Evans.
The story of crotchety, alcoholic, failed American, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his forgiving son, David (Will Forte), as they tilt at windmills on a quest to retrieve a fantastical million-dollar prize (as well as Woody’s lost dentures), is not overstuffed with plot points or complications—but the spaces in between the story turns of Bob Nelson’s screenplay are overfull of feelings battened-down under the exteriors of the people that survive in this environment.
I hope you’ve heard that it’s funny. It’s funny. The kind of human comedy that makes Hal Ashby films always relevant (let’s be honest—Alexander is his most direct artistic descendant). Woody’s quest is a hilariously misguided crusade, that brings out the worst behavior in (most of) the people around him.
It’s a CAPER film, as well! I won’t spoil it for you, but while my character, Ross, a local newscaster and a striving egotist, and his brother, David, are diametrically opposed on how to handle their father’s loosening grip on reality, they partner up in a foolhardy plan to steal some farm equipment from that damn Ed Pegram! Crime! Narrow escapes! This film’s got it all.
June Squibb, Bruce Dern, and myself (all Illinoisans) and Will Forte (honorary Midwesterner) recognized each other immediately in our characters—both onscreen and off. We talked of our hometowns, our extended families, our high school sports teams, and of the connection we all felt to these people we played, and their tough exteriors masking their deeper feelings. The connection you feel from us onscreen was just as real off-camera and remains so.
You may have heard Bruce Dern is masterful, that his performance won accolades at Cannes and is quite possibly the greatest of a storied career. As Woody Grant, the man is a mountain of swallowed pain. I will assure you that as Kate, David and Ross’s mother, and Woody’s wife, the sweet, warm, honey-cake of a lady named June Squibb transforms into a tornado of suffering wifehood that would make the Hulk cower. She rips it up. Stacy Keach plays the local big-man with a sharpness and menace that might make you pause before stopping in at the next small town corner bar. Will Forte reveals newfound depths in his portrayal, but the man in person is as warm and generous as the incredibly likable character he brings to the screen. Overseeing it all, Alexander Payne orchestrates a symphony of human behavior from just a few perfectly placed notes.
As you watch these stubborn, humble, unglamorous characters struggle to come to some kind of peace with each other and the world around them, you may see your own family onscreen. Enjoy them.