by Eric J. Grimm
Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach.
Alexander Payne movies have gotten progressively worse and more Oscar-baiting since his wonderful debut film, Citizen Ruth, in 1996. Nebraska is his latest effort to exploit rural folk, women in particular, and frame them as exotic creatures in his own artful zoo. The film was shot in black and white and uses the vintage Paramount logo as some sort of muddled artistic statement. It doesn’t seem to take inspiration from sixties or seventies black and white dramedies. It is pure Payne: ugly, unrefined, and sneering.
Nebraska is yet another road movie from Payne. This time, the travelers are David (Will Forte), an electronics salesman with very little going for him, and his alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who mistakenly believes he’s won a million dollars. Woody is initially presented as a worthless drunk, but we grow to learn that he’s very complex because he’s lost family members, done a few favors, and been taken advantage of by friends. None of these revelations are particularly shocking, especially since they surface from dialogue delivered by the painfully bad non-actors who make up the film’s supporting cast. Bruce Dern is fun to watch, but he has nothing to do but skillfully play the crotchety old coot stereotype. The role is designed and marketed to win him a long overdue Oscar, but the understated old man is such a tired character. I kept waiting for something to happen, but instead I just got one pained expression 2/3 of the way through and perhaps some show of dignity at the end.
The film really scrapes the bottom of the barrel with June Squibb as Willy’s irreverent wife, Kate. Payne previously objectified Squibb when he had Jack Nicholson stare at her rear end in disgust in About Schmidt. Now he has her swearing, casually talking about sex, and flashing her vagina at a gravestone. Again, Payne is working with an old person stereotype: in this case, the dirty old lady. He’s constantly getting cheap punch lines out of her, and you can almost see him congratulating himself for giving screen time to an older woman, no matter how one-note the roles may be.
Payne is always exploring the dark side of funny or the funny side of dark, but his increasingly obvious attempts at humor fall flat. He’s now resorted to using sexual assault as a punch line, seeing how far he can push the limits of what comes out of his non-actors mouths to illicit cheap laughs from a highbrow audience. The only thing that separates Nebraska from a TLC reality show is a bad script and unnecessary black and white cinematography.