“There’s not an actor alive who doesn’t wanna work with Alexander Payne,” announced Bruce Dern at the conclusion of Nebraska, the new film from the director of Sideways and Election, which is playing this week at the New York Film Festival. And he’s probably right — but it’s also easy to say that when said director hands an actor a role as plum as Dern’s. Like his longtime friend Jack Nicholson’s collaboration with Payne on About Schmidt, Dern’s performance in Nebraska transforms our perception of the iconic New Hollywood actor. Forever typecast as nutjobs and con artists, Dern’s Woody Grant is a little chubby, a little bewildered, and a lot unkempt. He’s grizzled, resigned, and wonderful, and so is the film.
Woody is just a hair this side of Alzheimer’s, and as the film begins, he keeps wandering off. It’s not aimless, though; he’s on a mission, determined to get from his hometown of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. You see, he got one of those scammy sweepstakes mailings and is convinced it’s telling him he’s a millionaire, so he wants to pick up his prize in person (“I’m not trusting the mail with a million dollars!”). That he didn’t actually win is the kind of sense that just can’t be talked into him, and when he pressures his son David (Will Forte) to take him on the 750-mile trip, David objects, “I can’t just drop everything and go to Lincoln, Nebraska!” Woody replies, “What else you got goin’ on?”
He has a point. David sells home stereos at a Best Buy knock-off, and his live-in girlfriend has just moved out. His relationship with his father is, to put it politely, strained; in conversations with his more successful older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk, always welcome), we get a sense of an unhappy childhood, mostly due to Woody’s nonstop drinking. David and Woody’s relationship remains difficult, strained by years of David choosing to let things go (though he’ll drop the pleasantries after a couple of beers).
Ultimately, though, Nebraska carries a sweet and affecting message about accepting the people you love, and whom you’re not going to change. Forte’s performance is a modest one; he’s basically the straight man to Dern and June Squibb, the marvelous character actor (she was Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt) who plays Kate, his mother and Dern’s wife, and basically steals the movie. Kate’s a real piece of work, uninterested in suffering the fool that her husband has become, but her comic high point is a trip to the cemetery in their hometown, where she gleefully reports the sordid details of family members’ lives and deaths. (Words cannot describe the laugh she generates from her cheerful rendering of the word “Cancer!”)
As per usual, though, some of the best performances in Payne’s film are those from people who are not actors by trade. The script by Bob Nelson (this is Payne’s first film on which the director is not a credited co-writer) has a remarkable ear for the sound of Midwestern chitchat, which is even more authentic coming from those who aren’t accustomed to reciting dialogue. “He surrounds you, every scene or so, with two or three non-actors who are so goddamned honest, you can’t possibly start acting and performing in front of these people,” Dern explained at the film’s post-screening press conference, prompting Forte to pipe up, in a quiet voice, “I would like to stop being referred to as a ‘non-actor’?”
The presence of Dern, the legendary co-star of The King of Marvin Gardens and Coming Home (among may others), in a Payne film is hardly surprising; this is one of our most vocal admirers of ‘70s cinema, and that love is all over the film, from the throwback Paramount logo that opens it to the shaggy dog, Mazursky-esque vibe and pacing to the black-and-white photography, which owes as much to The Last Picture Show as the films of Jim Jarmusch, whom Payne mentioned as an inspiration for that decision. But more than anything, according to Payne, the black and white “just felt right,” and it does, from the snowy Montana highways they drive out on to the flat, dusty Nebraska they end up in.
Most of the film is spent in neither Billings nor Lincoln but in Woody’s small Nebraska hometown, where they stop along the way to visit with family. Payne hails from Nebraska himself, and these scenes are marvelously evocative: he knows these towns, these streets, the stains on the sides of the houses just above the barbeque grills. He captures, with documentary precision, how family members with nothing in common always end up just sitting around watching reruns, or the sound of a steakhouse that doubles as a karaoke bar.
Nebraska settles in to those environs, and patiently acclimates to them. What seems at first a minor, slight work ends up growing on you; its characters become familiar as you settle into their rhythms and understand their flaws, and their running jokes become yours. It’s an endlessly funny picture, but there’s a melancholy at its center, never overcooked, but quietly simmering.
And that’s what makes Dern’s work so remarkable. That cemetery scene is a hoot, but occasionally Payne will cut away to Woody as Karen inventories all the sadness in his family, and you see that it’s done something to him. Later, they walk through his old house, and he doesn’t do anything particularly earth-shattering, yet you can’t take your eyes off him. This is simple, matter-of-fact, lived-in acting, less about theatrics than the croak of his voice, or the age in his eyes.
“I began a while ago with Mr. Kazan,” Dern said. “I came into the business because I was astounded that I was lucky enough to work for him and Mr. Strasberg. And when I got this script, I said this is what I got in the business to do. And I haven’t been able to do it very often in 55 years. And the challenge, to me, was to do what was in this script. Not fudge, not throw any Dern-sies in there, you know, or anything that made the ‘fifth cowboy from the right’ interesting… That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m here, anyway.”
Nebraska screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It opens November 22 in limited release.