Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph

Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.

But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”

Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.

Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.

A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.

One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.

All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.

“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”

“Stopped runnin’.”

“Yeah … They’ll do that.”

I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)

Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.