December 17, 2013


“Nebraska”--the latest offering from director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”)--is more of Payne’s unblinking look at the difficulty of human relationships and relatedness. Reminiscent of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” “Nebraska” is in the road trip film genre, a physical journey of an old man (a mesmerizing performance by Bruce Dern, of whom it has been said that he has an “unmatched natural acting style”) trying to set things right for himself.

Woody, the old man in question, is a flawed human being, but no more flawed than anyone else. He is completely average. His demon side is his drinking, and his angel side is that he wants to help everyone (and thus gets taken advantage of). Oh, and he also “believes what people tell him.” Because of this, he believes he has won a million dollars when he receives a sweepstakes mailing promotion. His son David (Will Forte in a serious role, enhanced by his sad, droopy eyes is a bit of a revelation) is an enabler, a dutiful son, a buddy, and almost a tender parent to his father. He humors him and goes along with the charade.

Does Woody REALLY believe he won a million dollars when everyone around him (except David) is telling him he didn’t? Somewhere down deep, probably not, but the sweepstakes letter has become his great hope, his raison d’etre, and he even sleeps with it. When you discover the reason for Woody’s fantasy (I’m no spoiler!), you will realize this film is NOT about dreams as I first thought it was.

The screenwriter has an incredible understanding of the older generation. I think we will all see our elderly parents, grandparents, relatives or neighbors in Woody and his contemporaries.

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY? Two contrasting views of marriage! Woody and Kate (Woody’s wife who is constantly berating him, June Squibb) knew that marriage was what you did. You commit and then you stick it out. David and Noel--his live-in girlfriend of two years who just moved out—aren’t as sure about commitment. But in both cases, the men are more concerned about sex and the women are more concerned about getting on with the permanency of the relationship. There are some good-natured digs at (along with some admiration of) Catholics being about having babies--(Yay! I wear that proudly!)—and then a questioning of the whole notion of divorce today (say what?—that’s even a question today??? In a film???): “Divorce used to be a sin. I guess God changed his mind.”

Don’t be turned off by the vulgarities you may see in clips of this movie. (Most of the vulgarities come from Kate, and are not all throughout the film.) I guess marketing figured it would be a selling point. But I know people who lost interest in the film because of these clips. Even if you’re incensed by profanity (and the name of the Lord being frequently taken in vain), I would encourage you to look beyond to this touching (and very funny) story about truth, hope, marriage, but mostly about a father and a son who have already reached an understanding even before they set out together on an impossible (or is it?) trek.


--“Nebraska” is a black and white film which suits it so perfectly. We are caught up in people’s expressions, and the small, rather desolate farming towns are bleak anyway.

--Pleeeeeeze give Dern an Oscar! I know there’s stiff competition with Chiwetel Ejiofor from “12 Years a Slave,” but pleeeeeze! Dern’s an old man! This is his last chance!

--Kate says the nastiest things with the most gleeful look on her face. You will criticize, judge, condemn, giggle with, forgive and applaud Kate at different times in this film. I would NOT be surprised if June Squibb is nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She is Woody’s perfect foil.

--I thought David’s brother, Ross, was Kevin Costner for the whole film. It’s Bob Odenkirk. Tell me he does not look uncannily like Costner. With a little plastic surgery.

--Life is tough. Love is tougher.

--There were several points in the film I just wanted to CHEER.

--This film is not about fading away gracefully or ungracefully or about closure. It’s about living. It simply doesn’t matter how old you are. We can always grow and change and LIVE. (Notice how much Woody sleeps and then when he finally perks up.)

--I cried when Peg Nagy almost did.

--Men will understand the theme of HONOR in this film.

--The most broken and ordinariest of lives matter. These two lines from “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” kept rolling around in my head during the movie: “And we'll guard each man's dignity /
And save each man's pride.”
Watch how David does this for his father.

--You DO know that Bruce Dern is Laura Dern’s father, right?

--Another Korean war vet story (like “Gran Torino”).

--Watch how many times people say and do the exact opposite of what they just said/did.

--I would die in a non-talkative family!

--Woody’s sad, roughed-up childhood “doesn’t matter,” but he looks forward with hope to a bright future.

--Love the attention to detail (character has to get a chair and pull it up to the table), and the old-fashioned language: “cool your jets,” “it’s a total come-on,” “you dumb cluck.”

--Yummy, homey, homely settings.

--Is that what humans look like watching TV? Truly terrifying.

--This story is partly told in SIGNS. All kinds of signs: highway signs, store signs, neon signs. My favorite: “MONSTER TAN” in the middle of a sparsely-populated, dilapidated center of town.

--Payne went to UCLA for film. Me too! Me too!

--Payne has gotten kinder and kinder to his characters through the years. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants.” So let me go on record that I pretty strongly disagree with most of Chris Nashawaty's review in "Entertainment Weekly," November 22, 2013.

--The only time Woody looks ashamed in front of his son (and he has a few things to be ashamed of) is when Woody’s old frenemy tells David—right in front of Woody—about Woody’s infidelity when he was married to David’s mother.

--Some interesting excuses for exposition: going to a graveyard and talking about the folks at their tombstones, driving down the road and talking about who lives in the houses.

--There’s a fair amount of unnecessary repetition in the film, but it’s not annoying. Only two lines stuck out as totally on-the-nose (and they happen toward the beginning): “He didn’t care s*** about us,” and the constant threat to put Woody in a “home.”

--“Nebraska” is a master class in set-ups and pay-offs in film. Payoffs are so often visual.

--Truly VISUAL storytelling and some great use of AUDIO.

--The humor is sheer Midwestern deadpan.

--My favorite line is whenever Woody says: "It doesn't matter." #KnowingWhatMattersIsEverything

--Some of the ribald humor actually works well to comedic effect (and unexpectedly reveals something about Kate).

--Some very clever and creative mis-en-scenes: looking through the windshield while driver and passenger exchange places. Just LOTS of visually interesting shots. No shot feels perfunctory. Payne is meticulous and precise in everything he does, anyway. According to, Payne is on a short list of directors who have final cut rights to their own films. “Nebraska” feels like an indie film. A welcome relief from the formulaic, super-shiny, more-android-than-human characters in so many Hollywood blockbusters.

--We need way more HUMANIZING films like this. Thank you, Alexander Payne!

--In Alexander Payne’s own words (I love his philosophy of filmmaking!):

I want all of my films to belong to me. There is an audience out there for literate films - slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made. Which is why I want Sideways (2004) to succeed, to encourage other film-makers.

While accepting his Director of the Year award for Sideways (2004) at the Palm Spring Film Festival: "I thank you for this award, though I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is 'an achievement.' It should be the norm".

We don't have movies about ourselves, and we don't have a national film culture. It shouldn't be an epic aspiration to make simple human stories, but it is.

Where is it written that if you are not getting your money from a studio you have more freedom? If I had tried to make Sideways with independent funding I would have had to secure foreign presales and cast big stars in order to get my budget. This movie took a studio to say 'We're gambling on you. Cast whoever you want.'

It's my hope that we're getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it. To do that, you need actors - stars, basically - who don't necessarily look like Ben Affleck.

When I'm shooting I don't care who the star is. I have an actor playing a part, and I'm serving the script, not serving anyone's career. My hope is that, after twenty minutes, perhaps the audience forgets it is George Clooney or Jack Nicholson and just sees the character.

One of cinema's greatest uses or values lies not just in it's ability to capture reality, but to capture or suggest dreams. And silent films excelled from the start in fully embracing the weirdness of real life and dream and how the two can be combined into a story, the likes of which I think, we've not seen in the talkies - a fuller, weirder totality of human experience.

Great interview with Payne about his getting into filmmaking: (Sadly, though, Payne also made "Citizen Ruth" because he thought the contention between pro-life and pro-abortion people made great fodder for comedy.)


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  2. Bill Howard (CO)2:49 PM

    Appreciate the review! Also, David Lynch (not Fincher) made "The Straight Story," which makes that film all the more remarkable! Was an interesting brief period there where notorious rated R directors made G-rated movies (David Mamet's outstanding "The Winslow Boy" came around then too, I think). Just shows they can do it if they really want to.