Sideways director, Alexander Payne’s return to the road movie genre, Nebraska, pokes unkind fun at American Midwesterners, says Simon Mernagh.
In Nebraska, elderly dad Woody (Bruce Dern) and son David (Will Forte) trek from Montana to Nebraska to claim a cash prize Woody’s convinced he won. En route, the two reconvene with Woody’s old ‘friends’ and scrupulous relatives, to whom Woody is allegedly indebted.
What’s infuriating about Nebraska is that it sets itself up as a certain type of film, before completely forfeiting this promise. At the beginning, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Brecht or Ibsen adaptation – there’s a striking air of realism surrounding the snoozy Midwestern locale. But before you know it, we’re treated to fistfights, dead-end romance subplots and several other incredibly irritating flecks of Hollywood that completely kibosh Nebraska’s artistic merits.
The guiltiest crook is a bizarre graveyard scene where a certain actress’s character persona is smashed to smithereens rather than simply ‘broken’. Given the verisimilitude the film delivers at the beginning, its subsequent downward spiral feels like a betrayal.
Nebraska is also a tonal conundrum. What with director Alexander Payne hailing from the eponymous state, and his general filmic fascination with the American Midwest, one would presume, nay expect him to portray the area and its inhabitants with a degree of affection, or at least nostalgia. However, rather than acting as an extended advertisement for the Great Plains, Nebraska is a cinematic warning sign against any such holiday.
It’s the people Nebraska lampoons, not the rolling countryside itself – virtually every character in this movie, bar our familial protagonists, is either fat, stupid or fat and stupid. It’s never quite visceral enough to be considered offensive, especially not to this 150lb Dubliner, but it certainly makes for unpleasant viewing.
David’s twin cousins are together a noteworthy example. A gormless duo with an obsession for vehicles and daytime TV, the audience is simply asked to laugh at how fat and stupid they are. Not unlike those awful sisters from The Fighter, they’re condescending while simultaneously extremely moronic. They’re a pair of walking, or rather bumbling stereotypes.
At least it looks nice. Grainy colours and sepia tones visually capture the carefree, relaxed vibes of the locale. But it’s the acting that single-handedly keeps the good ship Nebraska afloat – the brilliant Bruce Dern continues his status as perhaps the most underrated actor working in Hollywood today, while American TV heroes Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk (30 Rock and Breaking Bad, respectively) add low-key panache to proceedings. Nebraska also introduces the adorable and fabulous June Squibb in the guise of Kate Grant, David’s hilarious and brutally honest mother.
Unfortunately, even such wonderful performances fail to mask the underlying confusing and condescending tones endemic to Nebraska. As The Boss would sing, if he’d been included on the soundtrack as he should have been: “Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”.
Nebraska opens on Friday, December 6 in selected cinemas.
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